Can I Just Try a Sample of Sobriety?

January 20, 2020

You may have heard about Dry January by now. It’s a movement where people give up alcohol for the month of January in an attempt to start out the new year with a healthy kick. The trend has grown over the last decade and has taken off around the globe. If you are a skeptic, you may wonder, “does taking a month off of drinking really do anything or is this just another gimmick?”

Interestingly, there is evidence that taking a short break from drinking can instigate real change, especially if someone has really been struggling with that substance for a while. In addiction psychology, taking a period of time away from a substance has a name, sobriety sampling and it is an important part of two evidence-based approaches to helping someone change their substance use: Community Reinforcement Approach (CRA) and Motivational Interviewing (MI).

The idea of sobriety sampling recognizes that asking someone to make a permanent change to their substance use pattern is too big of a request for many people. Insisting that a person accept life-long abstinence as the only way to resolve their problem with substances often acts as a barrier to them considering or making any change at all! This applies to many of the behaviors people engage in and want to change. Say you need to lose 25 pounds and were told the only way you would be successful would be to cut out all sugar from your diet, forever. While cutting out sugar completely may be important, your initial instinct would likely be to think that was going to be too hard and maybe the 25 pounds wasn’t so bad. The same goes for substances; if you are told that you can never drink or use again in order to move past your current issues, you might not be willing to make that trade. On the other hand, if you are encouraged to take a month away from alcohol, as a trial to see what happens without it in your life,you might be more interested in trying to make a change.

Behavior change is hard and giving up substances as a way to cope with life can be very difficult. Sobriety sampling is a way to help get someone step into the world of change by asking them to make only a minimal commitment. This works because when we change our behaviors, even for a short period of time, there is an opportunity for us to better understand what we get from that behavior. When you stop drinking for a few weeks, you may realize that you don’t know how to relax without it, or that you are very anxious in social situations. You may not have really known what alcohol was doing for you as “it just seems normal to have a few drinks after work when you’re out with friends!” When you take the alcohol away for a period of time, the issues it was helping cover over become more evident.

This information gives you a real opportunity to work on changing a behavior that is helping to keep drinking a big part of your life. If you work on relaxation and social skills, you may not need to drink so much in order to feel relaxed and socially adept. And while this may not lead you to say that you will never drink again, it may mean that you no longer feel the need to drink in a problematic way (“I don’t have to drink so much in order to relax, I can have one drink and then be done because I’ve learned how to relax on my own”).

While Dry January is relatively new here in the US, it has had a much larger following in England and researchers at the University of Sussex have been following people who participate in Dry January. In 2019, over 800 people who took January off from drinking were surveyed over six months. In that time, average drinking days per week, average drinks consumed, and average times getting drunk per month all decreased. The take-away? People’s drinking habits changed to be less problematic and that change continued for at least six months time! Other benefits included saving money, more awareness of their own relationship with alcohol, feeling more in control of their drinking, increased health, better sleep, and more energy. All this from one month of abstinence from alcohol.

It is easy to get caught up in the belief that if you want to change a problematic behavior, you have to be ready to make a permanent change. The evidence though shows that even taking a short period of time to try out change can have some significant benefits for you, in both the short term and in the long term. So, maybe give Dry January a chance (or maybe Fitness February? Or Mindful March? How about Abstinent April?) and see if a sampling of change is right for you.

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