For many people, drinking is a part of life. It can be how we unwind, how we celebrate, and how we loosen up around other people. But if you've ever felt like you had too much to drink, you may have considered cutting back or cutting alcohol out altogether.
A recent global study found that no amount of alcohol is healthy if you are younger than forty, but even one of the authors of that study admitted that it’s unrealistic to think that younger people will abstain from alcohol entirely.
Still, attitudes and behaviors around alcohol do seem to be shifting. Fewer college-age Americans drink alcohol, compared to nearly 20 years ago and part of the reason for the decline in drinking is that Gen Z appear to be more cautious than older generations, both in terms of their health and how their peers perceive them.
If you're thinking of cutting back on the amount of alcohol you consume, going completely sober, or are interested in ways to moderate your drinking, you might be sober curious.
Sober curious essentially means that you’re interested in exploring ways to reduce or eliminate alcohol. While sobriety is full abstinence (and sometimes necessary for those who struggle with addiction, and/or alcohol use disorder), being sober curious means that your use can fall anywhere on a spectrum from cutting back to practicing abstinence for a certain amount of time.
The "sober curious" or "sober sometimes" movement is said to have started as a challenge for those who felt they'd partied a little too hard over New Year's weekend. First there was "Dry January," when people could brag on social media about how they were taking a break from booze. Now there's "Dry July" and even "Sober September” or Sober October.
As for the term “sober curious,” Ruby Warrington, the author of Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol, is said to have coined the term to describe her relationship with alcohol.
Being sober curious is all about examining the role alcohol plays in your life and seeing if you want to make any changes.
You don’t have to hit “rock bottom” before you cut back on or cut out alcohol. If you have an inkling that your drinking may be affecting your life negatively, gray area drinking (GAD) is that murky space somewhere between social and destructive drinking, and it affects a much larger percentage of the population than one would think.
In fact, about 90% of people who drink excessively wouldn’t meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for having a severe alcohol use disorder, or AUD and yet they’re still considered “excessive drinkers” and can experience a wide range of problems, from sleep disruptions to cancer.
Basically, any increase in drinking is associated with worse health outcomes, including mental health and physical health. Any reduction in drinking is associated with better health outcomes. In the long run, any reduction is going to be good for your health and wellbeing.
(Keep in mind that this is not medical advice: someone experiencing a serious alcohol disorder might not be able to stop short of full sobriety. If you experience withdrawal symptoms, extreme cravings, or other serious symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider before deciding to make behavioral changes).
If it’s safe for you to stop drinking or you’re looking to cut back, kicking off your sober curious journey means looking at why you drink, how you feel when it happens, and exploring what might happen if you cut out or reduce your alcohol consumption.
Consider why you drink, what role alcohol plays for you, what it costs you to drink, and how you feel about that.
You don’t have to be a heavy drinker to want to examine the role alcohol plays, and you don’t have to wait until something going wrong to cut back.
Folks who are sober curious end up asking themselves: would my life be better with less alcohol? Or no alcohol? What would that look like? How can I do things differently?
Maybe you participate in a dry month or even a dry week or weekend. Or you start by going on sober nights out, where you stick to nonalcoholic drinks even when everyone else is drinking.
How does it feel? Is it hard or easy? Do you miss alcohol? Do you feel better without it? What purpose was alcohol serving and can it be replaced by something else?
If you’re truly alcohol dependent, you’ll need to work with a healthcare provider to manage your drinking and treatments could include support groups, counseling, or medication.
But even those who are sober curious can work with a therapist to cut back or cut out alcohol. Your therapist can explore with you why you drink, come up with coping mechanisms when the urge to overindulge strikes, and help you strategize what a healthier and more fulfilling life looks like for you.
At the end of the day, why you’re not drinking isn’t anyone’s business! But we realize that that’s not always the easiest reason to give.
This is always an option! As long as it doesn’t cause more problems down the line. Just a quick, “Oh, I’m the designated driver,” or, “I have an early meeting,” will make most folks shrug and move onto the next person.
A quick, “I’m taking a little break from drinking,” or, “I’m not drinking tonight,” can work. Unfortunately, some people believe that your decision not to drink is somehow a judgment of them. Even more unfortunately, these might not be the best folks for you to spend time with, at least at this crossroads in your life. More on that below…
Whether you make up an excuse (“I have other plans!”) or you state the truth (“I’m trying to keep my distance from alcohol right now”), you are well within your right to decline an invitation to any event that has the potential to negatively impact your physical or mental health.
If you’re exploring sobriety, it might be best to spend time with people who respect your decision to cut down or cut out alcohol, rather than those who will judge your actions or pressure you to drink. There are so many options these days! From AA to Reddit to informal communities on social media platforms or formal group therapy programs, there’s something for everyone. There are even sober bars these days.
Many folks who drink are not interested in giving it up completely, and that’s okay. It’s an outdated notion that there are alcoholics and then everyone else. While alcohol use disorder does exist, not everyone fits into that category, and just because you don’t have AUD doesn’t mean that you have a great relationship with alcohol.
The sober curious movement has created a space for people to see what works for them, from cutting back, to cutting out, to cutting in and out. Some people limit the number of drinks they have, while others participate in Dry January or Sober October and find balance that way.
What’s important is that you look at your behaviors and how they are impacting your life and make decisions that support your wellbeing.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.