January has become practically synonymous with abstinence, as many of us resolve to eliminate something—sugar, gluten, cigarettes, caffeine, clutter—for the sake of self-betterment. Near the top of our collective hit list this year? Alcohol.

About 1 in 7 Americans plan to participate in Dry January, a month-long break from alcohol, according to the international research group YouGov. But unlike the fleeting nature of most New Year’s resolutions, this sober-sometimes trend seems to be gaining real traction.

In fact, it’s just one example of the growing “sober curious” movement, a term describing the desire to see what it might be like to not drink alcohol for at least a short while. Other manifestations include Sober September, Go Sober for October, and California Sober (abstinence from alcohol but not marijuana).

Meanwhile, alcohol-adjacent opportunities abound, with alcohol-free “sober bars” like Getaway in Brooklyn and Sans Bar in Austin popping up around the country, and Fortune magazine declaring 2020 the year the “mocktail goes mainstream.”

It all sounds pretty positive at first blush, and in some ways, it is. For starters, there are the straight-up health benefits of abstaining: One study of more than 800 dry Januarians revealed a range of physical and mental benefits, with 71 percent of participants reporting better sleep, 58 percent saying they lost weight, and 57 percent experiencing a boost in concentration.

But how is this movement viewed by experts in the field of addiction, who know that for some people who are struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), the phrase “sober sometimes” is not only an oxymoron, but a dangerous one? We asked a couple and here’s what they had to say:

“Sober Curious” May Give Drinking a Bad Rap

In a culture where alcohol has long been promoted as the most socially acceptable way to celebrate or relax, there’s certainly benefit to questioning the status quo, says Elie G Aoun, M.D., an addictions and forensics psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University. “It creates awareness among people who don’t have an AUD that alcohol is not beneficial, that it could be harmful,” says Dr. Aoun. Considering 1 in 6 American adults binge drink—which is linked with cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and more—that’s a lesson we still need to learn.

The fact that sobriety is trending at all could “deglamorize” drinking, making it less appealing to younger generations in particular and potentially reducing AUD prevalence in the future, notes Norman Hoffman, Ph.D., an addiction researcher and adjunct professor of psychology at Western Carolina University. That’s purely theoretical, he notes, but alcohol industry analysts are seeing recent downshifts in consumption: For the first time in 25 years, wine consumption decreased in 2019, down about 1 percent from 2018, and consumer demands for low-alcohol drinks is on the rise, according to industry tracker IWSR.

The shift in public opinion might also help chip away at the stigma that’s long kept those with an alcohol use disorder in the shadows. “There’s a reason for the second ‘A’ in AA—it used to be if anybody found out you were suffering from alcohol dependence you could lose your job and more,” says Hoffman. “The sober curious movement might normalize not drinking, so someone might be more willing to say, ‘I’m doing Dry January…and a sober February…and probably a sober March’ without fear of consequences.”

Sometimes Sober Could Downplay Disorders

While increased awareness is generally a good thing, it doesn’t always equate with increased understanding. “One of the biggest problems with the way we talk about drug and alcohol abuse in our society is that we think of the disorders as just an extension of accepted use of the substance,” says Dr. Aoun. “But when you have an AUD, it’s a completely different beast: It’s not drinking to excess; it’s a disorder of impulse control, of stimulus management.”

In other words, the sometimes-sober movement may be unfairly—albeit inadvertently—equating a conscious desire to cut back with an inherent drive to keep drinking. “What I hear from my AUD patients is, ‘This person doesn’t have an addiction, why are they trying to make a big deal out of it?’” says Dr. Aoun. “They feel like people are undervaluing or minimizing the severity of their problems.”

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The Benefits Depend On The Motivation

A person’s reasons for participating in the sober curious movement could be a reflection of a simple desire to be and feel healthier—or it could function as a way to cover up a serious problem.

“If it’s just that you don’t like the effects of alcohol as much as you used to, for example, or that you want to explore a different social group that’s not into drinking, that’s one thing,” Hoffman says. “Most individuals will naturally moderate their alcohol use if there is no problem.”

But if you’re pausing because you think you’re beginning to lose control over how much you’re drinking, odds are you’re correct, Hoffman continues. “That’s a symptom that maybe you need more than just a week or a month off.”

Another red flag: Taking a break as a way to prove to yourself that you don’t have a problem. “That’s part of the self-deception that’s inherent in any addictive behavior, the idea that ‘I can control it,’” says Hoffman.

Blips Of Sobriety Aren’t Always Beneficial

There are a number of ways a Dry January could go. The first is just as planned: You give up alcohol for a month to, say, detox for your health and shed a few pounds, end the month feeling a little better and lighter, and return to life as usual come February, occasional drinks included.

Another possible positive outcome: Somewhere along the way you realize there might be a reason to keep up the sobriety, or at least revisit it occasionally. “It might be, ‘Gee, I don’t really need to drink to have fun,’ which for some people might be a revelation,” says Hoffman. Or, maybe you find you’re pretty preoccupied by cravings for alcohol and counting the days until the end of the month, and decide it’s time to seek professional help.

A fourth, less ideal scenario could occur with someone who doesn’t have a problem now, but goes on to develop an addiction in the future. In this case, the memory of a successful Dry January from the past could impede their willingness to engage in or appreciate the need for treatment in the present.

“The first thought that will come to their mind is, ‘I used to stop drinking for a month before, so I’m going to do it by myself,’” says Dr. Aoun. “But at that point, when a person has an addiction, the same strategy that worked before isn’t going to work again. Instead, it just delays treatment and undermines its value.”

The Problem With “Cali Sober”

Compared to a lot of other drugs out there, marijuana is certainly not the most dangerous, and it can even be helpful for some conditions like pain, nausea, and seizures, says Dr. Aoun. “But the marketing message people are getting bombarded with is that marijuana is 100 percent safe and effective, and this is where things can get dangerous,” he says.

In fact, marijuana has been shown to impair cognitive function, and regular use has been associated with increased risk of anxiety and depression, according to one research review in the New England Journal of Medicine. What’s more, marijuana is addictive, and for people who are at risk of addiction, it could increase the risk of developing another future addiction, says Dr. Aoun. “Stopping alcohol and replacing it with marijuana is not something I would ever recommend. In reality, both can be beneficial in situations, and both can lead to very negative consequences.”

Signs of Alcoholism (aka Alcohol Use Disorder)

Alcohol use exists on a spectrum, and so it’s not always obvious when you or a loved one has slid into the realm of danger and dependence. Here’s a series of warning signs that you might have an alcohol use disorder from Dr. Aoun and Hoffman:

  • You feel as if you need to cut back on drinking
  • You can’t stop thinking about drinking/you’re preoccupied by alcohol cravings
  • You can’t stop drinking
  • If you do stop drinking, the effects of not drinking are worse than the side effects of alcohol (nausea, shaking, sweating)
  • You have to drink more and more alcohol over time to get the same effect (aka, you keep building a higher tolerance)
  • You continue to drink despite knowing it’s affecting your health
  • You spend a lot of time buying alcohol, getting drunk, or recovering from the effects of alcohol
  • Drinking makes you neglect your responsibilities (going to work, caring for your children)
  • You drink even when it’s physically dangerous (driving, using heavy machinery)
  • Others have objected to your drinking habits

Please note that this list in no way acts as a stand in for a medical professional. If a few (or more) of these red flags feel familiar, don’t wait to talk to your doctor.

There’s Help If You Need It

With addiction, treatment takes two major forms. The first, psychotherapy, is a highly-effective long-term tool, and there are a number of different styles you can try.

For instance, group psychotherapy allows you to share your experiences and get support from others like you, all under the guidance of a trained psychologist. Another, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is a goal-oriented approach that helps patients change their behavioral responses to negative thoughts that lead to drinking. Both Dr. Aoun and Hoffman also recommend motivational interviewing (aka motivational enhancement therapy). “It’s proven to help people resolve their ambivalence around addiction and move forward using what’s important to them,” says Dr. Aoun.

The second treatment form is medication, and there are three FDA-approved drugs for addressing alcohol dependence:

  • Antabuse: Drinking while taking antabuse makes you very sick, says Dr. Aoun. “You’ll start to throw up, get bad nausea, a headache — it’s basically treatment by aversion.”
  • Naltrexone: A daily pill or monthly injection, naltrexone helps reduce the desire to drink, making it easier to resist.
  • Acamprosate: Similar to naltrexone, acamprosate is an oral medication that decreases cravings for alcohol.

“If you have alcohol (or opioid) addiction these medications — that’s the first line of treatment,” says Dr. Aoun. “They’re safe, they’re effective, they’re easily tolerated, and they increase the likelihood of recovery tremendously.”

The final key to overcoming an alcohol use disorder? Peer support. That’s where groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Rational Recovery, and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) are crucial. They’re not a form of treatment, Dr. Aoun stresses, but having a strong peer support system can make all the difference in lasting recovery.

And it doesn’t matter which group you choose — none has been proven “better” than another, says Hoffman. “I tell people to go to five different meetings before making a decision,” he says. “What’s most important is finding a group that you’re comfortable with, and whose philosophy and principles reflect your own personal beliefs.”

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Last Updated: Sep 24, 2020