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Sober October: Understanding the Mental Health Impact of Drinking

Is drinking bad for you? Would you feel better if you cut out alcohol? These are some of the questions people have started asking themselves as part of the Sober Curious movement.

October is known for many things like fun fall activities, pumpkin spice everything, and trick-or-treating. And, for the past decade, it's also gained attention for its new label—Sober October.

Quick Disclaimer: Sober October and being sober curious is not a replacement for the treatment and recovery process of a substance use disorder. If you are struggling with addiction, please reach out for help from a licensed mental health professional.

What is Sober October?

Sober October is similar to Dry January. They are both part of the Sober Curious movement. It's not about giving up alcohol forever. And it's not trying to say that alcohol is bad. It is simply meant to be a break from drinking that allows you to reexamine your relationship with alcohol and how it impacts your health and wellness.

People get different results from doing this experiment, and there are several different ways they choose to move forward when the month is over.

  • Don't resume drinking - Some people have a positive experience during Sober October and choose not to return to drinking when the month is over.

  • Reduce alcohol consumption - Some people return to having alcoholic beverages but choose to do so less frequently.

  • Return to previous drinking behavior - There are also people that participate in Sober October or spend time being Sober Curious and then choose to go back to whatever their previous drinking habits or choices were.

There is no right or wrong option for moving forward. Instead, it's important that if you spend time being Sober Curious, you observe how you feel physically and mentally during that time. Then, you can record any changes you notice and make the best decision for you.

Does alcohol impact mental health?

Many people like to have a drink at parties and social events or before doing things that make them nervous. They choose to drink because they think it will help them relax so they won't feel as nervous talking to others. Many believe that alcohol helps ease their anxiety.

In reality, while alcohol may give you temporary relief from symptoms of anxiety, it can be linked to worsening mental health challenges. This is because drinking alcohol impacts the chemicals in your brain, which can leave you with heightened levels of anxiety and depression once the alcohol wears off.

In addition, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, "About 20 percent of people with social anxiety disorder also suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence, and a recent study found that the two disorders have a stronger connection among women."

Understanding why you choose to drink and its impact on you is important for improving or maintaining your health and wellness.

Does alcohol impact your physical health?

You have likely heard that excessive drinking can damage your health and wellness. Excessive alcohol consumption or overdose can include stomach ulcers, liver damage, brain damage, and even death.

However, even if you're not drinking "too much," alcohol can have "minor" impacts on your physical health as well, including:

  • Indigestion

  • Change in sleep habits

  • Weakened muscles and bones

  • Weakened immune system

  • Increased risk of cancer

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Weight gain

While some of these symptoms may not seem as serious, they can still impact you on a daily basis, which is another reason taking time to be sober curious is helpful.

Paying attention to why you choose to have a drink

Part of being Sober Curious is noticing why you choose to drink when you do.

A UK study found a connection between the well-being of an individual and why they chose to drink. For example, "Almost three-quarters (72.8% ) of those with low mental well-being drank for coping reasons, compared to 35.1% of those with high mental well-being. Over half (53.1%) of those with low mental well-being drank for conformity reasons, compared to 33.2% of those with high mental well-being."

The results show that the reasons you choose to drink can indicate the state of your mental health and well-being. For example, suppose you discover that you are more likely to drink when facing a difficult situation. In that case, it could indicate that other areas of your life could be addressed or improved on. For example, learning healthy and effective strategies for handling stress may eliminate some of the time you choose to drink.

How you can participate in Sober October

If you missed out on starting Sober October this year, it's not too late. Being Sober Curious doesn't need to be tied to a trendy social media hashtag. You can choose to abstain from alcohol for a period of time whenever you want. You don't have to wait for a new week, new month, Dry January, Dry July, or the next Sober October to get started.

Here are some tips if you want to give the Sober Curious movement a try:

Find accountability

It can help you stay motivated to stick with your month of no drinking if you involve some friends or family. You can help hold each other accountable. This can also be helpful because you will have others choosing not to drink when you are together. It can make it easier to follow through when you're not the only one passing on having a drink.

Check-in with each other each week or every few days to see how it's going for the other. Talk about the challenges you've faced, if any, what you're learning about yourself, and any positive benefits you've experienced.

Find a replacement drink

If you're used to having a drink as part of your routine, look for a nonalcoholic drink you can replace it with that will still feel like a treat. You can choose something like seltzer water or find your favorite mocktails to enjoy. There are many nonalcoholic drinks you can choose from and enjoy.

Change where you spend time

If you and your friends usually hang out at the bar, you may want to try a few new locations during your sober curious month. Look for activities you can engage in that will keep you busy. You can enjoy new experiences and maybe even discover a new hobby you want to stick with going forward.

You can also spend more time at home or hanging out with friends and family at their homes. Be open to new ideas because sometimes changing your environment and activities can help you when choosing not to drink alcohol.

Don't keep alcohol in your home

Eliminate some of your temptations by getting rid of any of the alcohol you have in your house. If you recently finished up your favorite bottle of wine, don't buy more. If you have some drinks left over, pass them to friends who may enjoy them. Or, don't be afraid to dump any alcohol out so you don't have it as a temptation while being Sober Curious.

Celebrate along the way

Celebrating your small successes can help you build confidence along the way. You don't need to wait until the month is over to celebrate your progress. Instead, take time to list out small goals you can accomplish throughout the month. These goals could include breaking the month down into weeks or listing out any events you will need to avoid drinking while attending, like a friend's wedding.

Keep this list of small goals where you will see it daily. Then, cross them off as you accomplish them. Allow yourself to enjoy the small wins along the way to hitting your big goal.

You can also share your success with friends and family who will celebrate with you.

Find replacements for stressful days

If you tend to crave a drink after a long day at work or having a stressful conversation with your mom or some other situation, find a replacement activity you can enjoy. Take a bubble bath, get your nails done, or hike your favorite path at the park.

Your break from alcohol can also be a great time to learn new and healthier ways to cope with difficult emotions.

Work with a therapist

There are many ways a therapist can help you as you navigate being sober curious. Therapy sessions can help you learn more about why you choose to drink when you do and coping strategies you can use instead. They can also help you learn to get to the root of problems that you're facing in life. A therapist can also help if you struggle with alcohol or substance use.

In addition, a therapist can provide you with the support and encouragement that you may not have in your circle.

Keep a journal

There are many changes that people can notice when they choose to be intentional about not drinking alcohol for a month. Some of those changes include:

  • Getting better sleep

  • Losing weight

  • Healthier looking skin

  • Improved concentration

  • Less anxiety

Keeping a daily journal can help you notice and document the changes you're seeing along the way. If you go through the entire month without drinking but don't pay attention to any changes you have, you are leaving the "curious" part out of being "sober curious."

You want to intentionally look for any ways alcohol impacts you that you may have been missing.

Creating a plan for moving forward

Once your designated time of being sober is up, it's helpful to reflect on your experience and think about what you have learned. Again, it can help to work with a therapist as you process this time.

Consider why you usually choose to drink and the impact—small or large—that it has on your mind and body. Consider if there are situations where others expect you to drink. Ask yourself what you enjoyed about the month.

Then, use that information to be intentional about how you choose to move forward with alcohol in the future. Remember, taking time to be sober curious doesn't mean you can't decide to drink in the future. But, the goal is to help you be more intentional about choosing to drink because you are more aware of how it impacts you.

If you want to speak with a therapist or are looking for support in changing your behaviors around alcohol or substance use or dealing with difficult emotions, please contact us today.

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