By Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Chief Science Officer,
Recovery Centers of America
Adjunct Clinical Asst. Professor, University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine
Millions of people around the world – specifically the UK and U.S. – attempt “Dry January” each year, a month of voluntarily forgoing alcohol, often after overindulging at the holidays, to start the new year on a more refreshed and healthy note. This has numerous benefits: better sleep, weight loss, monetary savings, more energy, better skin, and other health improvements. So why stop at Dry January?
If nothing else, being alcohol-free for 31 days should prove that you do not need alcohol to have fun or be social. Plus, studies have shown that drinking too much alcohol can have adverse effects on your brain, heart, liver, pancreas, stomach, lungs, gastrointestinal system, reproductive system, and more, but that organ damage from drinking can be reparable when you stop drinking. Abstaining from alcohol whether or not you technically have an addiction or “alcohol use disorder” (the correct medical terminology) is an exercise in good health. Why not prolong this good health further into 2020?
Of course, there are those who try Dry January and are less than successful. If this is you, it doesn’t mean definitively that you have a significant problem with alcohol… but you should know that it is a possibility. Likewise, just because someone stops drinking for a certain amount of time doesn’t mean that they do not have a more serious problem with alcohol. The fact that a person thinks they should take some “time off” from drinking could be a warning sign of something more serious going on.
If you tried and failed Dry January, don’t give up. Try Dry February. If you find that you have trouble abstaining from drinking even though you really want to, you may be struggling with a more serious issue. It may be wise to consider the following:
- If you were committed to going a month without drinking but didn’t make it, when you did drink, was it to celebrate a special occasion, did something stressful happen, or was it just an ordinary day/night? Sometimes context matters and a slip-up at a wedding or birthday party may not be such a big deal. If, however, you felt you just needed a drink on a regular day, or to cope with life’s difficulties, there could be deeper reasons why you are turning to alcohol.
- Did you drink to cope with feelings of depression, anxiety or emotions or to fit in socially? Without realizing it, you may be using alcohol to cope with mental health issues for which you should really see a doctor. A medical professional can help you understand underlying reasons for alcohol use/overuse and give you tools besides alcohol to help get you through. They can also identify if there is a more serious issue going on.
- Did you slip-up just once but overindulge and black out? Binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States. One in six U.S. adults binge drinks about four times a month, consuming about seven drinks per binge. And while the CDC says that most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent, this doesn’t mean that binge drinking isn’t a serious and deadly problem, just that the problem is not an every-day occurrence.
Ultimately, sober months like Dry January can be harmless for the majority of the population who do not have a severe alcohol use disorder (diagnoses are characterized as mild, moderate or severe); those who do could encounter very serious health risks when quitting abruptly and should take caution. These “dry” months can also be useful tests for determining if you have deeper issues with alcohol. This could mean addiction or it could be self-medicating for other mental health issues like depression or anxiety. If these periods of abstinence are difficult for you, there is no shame in seeking help. Excellent treatment programs in outpatient and inpatient settings do exist. Alcohol use disorder is treatable, people can and do recover.