You may want to stop drinking alcohol for any number of reasons. Perhaps you’re after the health benefits of sobriety, such as more energy and better sleep. Maybe it’s a challenge or a way to raise money for a cause close to your heart.
Or perhaps it’s essential that you stop drinking alcohol, to take care of your mental and physical health. This reason could apply to functioning alcoholics, people with alcohol-related conditions such as liver disease or those taking new medication that cannot be mixed with alcohol.
Your reason behind your decision to stop drinking alcohol doesn’t really matter, because sobriety is possible for anyone. However, it’s worth noting that certain populations, such as people with alcohol addiction, including functioning alcoholics, the method by which you quit is important.
If you are currently drinking too much, you’re not alone. Recent data found both men (28%) and women (15%) drank at increasing or higher risk levels (over 14 units in the last week). Yet despite that, sobriety, or even being ‘sober curious’, is a societal shift gaining momentum. Increasingly, being sober is not that uncommon in the UK: the latest available ONS data found 20% of survey respondents said they did not drink alcohol at all.
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What Is the Best Way to Stop Drinking?
If you’ve decided to give up alcohol and join the ranks of sobriety, you’re probably wondering what is the best way to stop drinking? Should you do just that – cut it out abruptly – or would a gentler, more gradual approach work best?
The answer depends on your current relationship with alcohol. If you are currently dependent on alcohol, which means you experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms like delirium tremens, sweating or nausea if you try to stop, it is not advisable that you quit cold turkey. Doing so could actually negatively affect your health.
Choosing to get sober is a process and taking it moment by moment can be useful. Getting to sobriety can look different for different people, don’t beat yourself up if your path looks different to someone else’s.
First of all, you need to assess your current drinking. Do you drink little and often? Save it up for all out binges? Or do you regularly abuse alcohol and find yourself dependent on it?
The reason for doing this is to work out what method of quitting alcohol will work best for you. If you are someone who has a couple of glasses of wine a week, you may find you can stop abruptly and find sobriety relatively easily.
Likewise, if you aren’t a regular drinker but end up overdoing it on occasions, you may be able to examine your reasons for doing this (Peer pressure? Social anxiety?), address them and stop drinking alcohol quite quickly and abruptly.
However, if you have been abusing alcohol for a long time or find yourself dependent on it to function, you would be best suited to a medically supervised detox. This can help you to manage the sometimes painful withdrawal symptoms and give you the best chance of getting sober without relapsing.
Handling Urges to Drink Alcohol
Pay careful attention to your triggers. What are they? When you feel an urge to drink, get curious. Ask what is behind that temptentation? Perhaps it is certain people, it could be a specific place or an event. It could have to do with internal reasons too, such as certain feelings like shame, anger or loneliness.
Whatever your triggers are, the key to overcoming those urges is to learn to deal with the trigger in a new but effective manner. How this looks will depend on what your specific triggers are.
Let’s say a certain person triggers a deep desire for alcohol in you, it might be worthwhile to avoid contact with them for a while in order to maximise your chances of getting sober.
Perhaps you feel compelled to drink when your job stress begins to feel overwhelming, in which case you need to develop some healthier stress management techniques which could include putting more robust boundaries in place at your workplace. This could look like telling your boss you are unavailable to answer work communications outside of office hours.
Maybe walking past a certain pub makes you crave a drink. In this instance, you could simply reroute your walk and avoid it altogether for the time being.
The point is, everyone will have different reasons that trigger that urge to drink. The best way to beat them is to develop healthy coping mechanisms, while remembering your reason why you want to get sober.
Effects of Alcohol on the Brain Long-Term
Although alcohol is legal and drinking it, even excessively, is often seen as socially permissible, heavy alcohol consumption is linked to a whole host of health issues including brain problems, especially in the long-term.
If you have abused alcohol for a long period of time, you may experience nutrition deficiencies, this can have a knock on effect on brain health. For example, a thiamine deficiency can result in Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Sometimes called ‘wet brain’, it can cause ongoing confusion, eye problems, coordination issues and persistence learning and memory problems.
Alcohol use has been identified as a risk factor for dementia, as well as general cognitive decline. One review of the literature published on this found: “Heavy alcohol use was associated with changes in brain structures, cognitive impairments, and an increased risk of all types of dementia.”
A stroke happens when something stops blood supply to a part of the brain, or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. It can result in lasting brain damage, long-term disability and can be fatal. A meta review found that heavy alcohol consumption can increase the risk of stroke.
Alcoholic Brain vs Normal Brain
One way to look at the difference between alcoholic and non alcoholic brains is via this research by the University of Oxford, which tracked participants, their drinking habits and health outcomes for 30 years.
At the beginning of the study in 1985 none of the participants were dependent on alcohol. Over the following 30 years, they answered in-depth questions about their alcohol consumption and took relevant tests to observe various cognitive skills, such as those involving memory and reasoning.
When looking at the data after 30 years, the researchers found that the amount of brain shrinkage in the hippocampus (to do with memory and reasoning) related to the amount people drank.
It found that those who drank four or more drinks a day had almost six times the risk of hippocampus shrinkage compared with nondrinkers. Even in those considered mild or moderate drinkers, there was more shrinkage than those who were sober.
Is It Possible to Stop Drinking on Your Own?
Yes, it is possible to stop drinking on your own. It comes down to what is the right choice for you and your current drinking situation.
If you are physically dependent on alcohol, and likely to experience a range of unpleasant alcohol withdrawal symptoms including delirium tremens, hallucinations and seizures, quitting alcohol on your own may not be the best idea. You would benefit from a medically supervised detox, where you can have access to medication and support to help ease you through the worst of the withdrawal.
However, if you are an occasional drinker, you may find you’re able to stop drinking alcohol on your own. You will still also benefit from thinking about what is driving the compulsion to drink, whether it’s a glass of wine at the end of the week to unwind or a binge drinking session at a party.
Stopping drinking will make you sober, but the reasons driving the perceived need for alcohol will still be there and need addressing. In this previous example of using a glass of wine to destress, it could look like looking for ways to remove certain stressors from your life as well as developing healthier ways to destress, such as phoning a loved one or taking a long, warm bath.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
If you have been drinking heavily for a while, or have become physically dependent on alcohol, you may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking alcohol. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and can include:
- Faster heart rate
- Sleep problems
You could also experience delirium tremens, which can include severe disorientation, increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing problems, along with uncontrollable restless behaviour.
Why Do You Get Depressed When You Stop Drinking?
Quitting alcohol can make you feel depressed. Along with the psychological reasons for this, there is a biological cause. Your brain’s reward system will be in shock and may take a while to get back to normal now there is nothing to artificially increase your dopamine. As well as that, research has found that alcohol can cause emotional instability as well as make depression worse.
You might also experience a bit of a grieving period. Stopping alcohol, especially if it has played a central role in your life, can feel like a loss. You might also feel like life doesn’t feel as ‘fun’ anymore, now that you cannot access the high associated with alcohol use. On the flipside, you’ll be left to confront the issues that before you could numb out with alcohol.
The good news is you can help yourself through this difficult time. You can establish a routine of self-care, get to know yourself better through habits like journaling or meditation and focus on other pursuits that bring you joy and fun, such as old or new hobbies and time spent in the company of good friends.
How Do You Know When You’re an Alcoholic?
You might have an alcohol problem if you identify with any of the following statements:
- When drinking, I often behave in ways I later regret
- You struggle when it comes to reducing alcohol
- I rarely go a day without drinking
- I struggle to control my drinking
- I drink alone or early in the morning
- Other areas of my life, such as finances or relationships, suffer because of my alcohol use
- Friends or family members have told me they are worried about my drinking
What’s a Functioning Alcoholic
When most people think of someone with an alcohol problem, they picture someone who can’t hold their life together. But that isn’t alway an accurate depiction of what life with an alcohol problem is like.
A functioning alcoholic is someone who still fulfils their basic life duties, but still struggles with problem drinking nonetheless.
To the outside world it might look like such a person is doing fine. They could be in a relationship or married, have a successful job, socialise with friends and even engage regularly with hobbies.
According to the National Institutes of Health, functional alcoholics typically make up 20% of people with alcohol problems. They are typically “middle-aged, well-educated, with stable jobs and families”. It’s also worth noting that about a third had a multigenerational family history of alcoholism, 25% had a history of depression and 50% were smokers.
The First Steps to Sobriety
One of the first steps to sobriety is to recognise you have a problem. If you are still in denial, it will be difficult to give up alcohol as your brian will make excuses and try to rationalise that you don’t have a real problem. If this is where you’re currently at, you might like to start recording your drinking habits or even starting a journal where you write how you feel the day after drinking. This will provide you with solid evidence.
Next you’ll need to decide how to tackle the problem. If you don’t regularly and excessively abuse alcohol, but would like to cut it out and become sober nonetheless, you will likely be able to attempt this on your own. As we discussed earlier, you’ll want to look at your reasons for drinking (e.g. stress relief, social) and come up with an alternative strategy.
If, however, you identify that you have a drinking problem and are likely going to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms you would likely benefit from some expert guidance. You can contact your healthcare practitioner for advice. Depending on the severity of your alcohol addiction, you might find a medically supervised detox will set you up with the best chance of long-term success.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a fantastic resource for anyone grappling with alcohol addiction. It is dedicated to helping people struggling with alcohol addiction, and they do this through their regular AA meetings and Twelve Step plan.
If this is something you are interested in, why not attend a local meeting? You don’t have to share anything, you can just go along and listen to begin with.
How to Stay Sober
Once you have got sober, you’ll want to maintain your sobriety to avoid relapsing back into alcohol abuse. There are plenty of strategies different people use to stay sober, here are a few suggestions:
Identify your triggers: What causes alcohol cravings? Once the physical withdrawal symptoms are gone, you’ll no longer be physically craving alcohol, but your mind will likely still produce cravings in response to triggers such as stress, certain people or environmental cues. Know your triggers and learn how to manage them.
Create routine: When your life no longer centres around alcohol, you’ll find yourself with a lot more free time. You’ll want to create new routines and habits, partly to distract you and partly to rebuild your life in the way you’d like. This might mean meeting new friends, starting a new hobby or setting up a nightly wind down routine before bed.
Get support: If you’re going to avoid relapse, you will need support. It doesn’t matter whether that comes from friends and family or a more structured form, such as regular AA meetings or a weekly appointment with a therapist, but some form of support is key.
Note: The contents of this page are not to replace the advice of a medical professional