So you’re well into Dry January and really itching for a beer? We get it (because we’re there too).
Alcohol, like any drug, causes a release of dopamine, which gives us that blissed-out feeling, explains Deanna Crosby, clinical director at New Method Wellness, a Southern California–based mental health center that specializes in addiction treatment. Our brains are tuned to crave it. That makes it hard to quit—even for folks without true alcohol addictions—but there are real benefits of doing so.
But you have to get through the month—and that can be harder than anticipated.
The good news is that if you don’t have a true alcohol use disorder, your cravings will likely be mild, and you can probably get through them with a few simple strategies, says Mark Jaffe, psychiatrist at the Beach House Treatment Center in Malibu, California. (If, however, you are really struggling to get through an evening without a glass of wine, you may need to think critically about your relationship with alcohol. In this case, your best bet will be seeking out an addiction professional.)
Identify the Type of Craving
Do you want a beer because it makes you feel good? Or do you want a beer because you think you’re about to feel bad and it will blunt the pain? These are the two main drivers for cravings, says Judy Grisel, a professor of psychology at Bucknell University and author of Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction. Identifying why you want a drink can be a significant clue in figuring out what role drinking plays in your life—and then mitigating that role.
In fact, Jaffe says most of his patients end up with a dual diagnosis, with mental health care becoming a part of their treatment plan. “One patient I have is drinking because he’s depressed,” he says, adding that as the patient began treatment for depression, the urge to drink in excess each night began to lift.
Grisel says that this kind of craving, where you reach for alcohol to blunt the hard edges of your life, is more symptomatic of a problematic relationship with booze. If your cravings are mostly related to celebrating or being out with friends, then think about changing the context of your evenings so you’re not surrounded by environs that remind you of booze. For example, if you always order a margarita when you and your friends go out for Mexican food, maybe opt for Thai food, or see if you can grab your tacos to go.
Be Aware of Stress
“Stress precipitates relapse,” Grisel says, and almost all of us are living on a steady diet of it. One of the best ways to decrease cravings is to work to remove stress from your life. Since that’s somewhat hard to do and often out of our control, taking a moment to realize that the craving we’re feeling is likely stress-related can, at the very least, help us put what feels like a failure of willpower into perspective.
Crosby tells her patients that the average craving lasts only seven minutes. While that number may change for different drugs and different levels of dependency, the general idea works: this will pass. Of course, getting through it is still hard. Crosby’s favorite suggestion is to engage in a micro bout of exercise. “Right in the middle of a craving, do a one-minute plank,” or go for a run around your block. It doesn’t have to be long or arduous. A minute or two of effort is a perfect distraction. In part, this is because it’s impossible to drink and plank. But exercise, like alcohol, also releases dopamine, Crosby says.
If exercise isn’t your jam, do some other sort of activity that engages your hands and your mind.
“It doesn’t really matter if you are trimming bonsai trees or learning to surf,” Crosby explains. If you’re engaged in something new and interesting, you’re less likely to be thinking about what you’re missing.
Get Out of Town
Routines are powerful and can be hard to break. “It’s really good to take a vacation if you’re trying to quit something, because the totally new context makes it much easier,” Grisel says. Furthermore, you’re significantly less stressed on a vacation and away from the stress of work, etc. Just be aware that there will still be temptations, like passing the après bar on a ski trip or navigating the tiki lounge by the pool.
Enlist Your Friends
Jaffe says a key tenet of 12-step programs is the use of a sponsor. Usually, this is someone who has been through the program and knows what you’re experiencing. One great thing about Dry January’s growth in popularity is that you probably know other folks cutting drinking from their lives this month. Reach out to them. Plan a time to get together that might otherwise be time spent at a bar. When your running friends crack open cold ones, duck out to meet a sober friend. A 2017 study that tracked the progress of those who registered for Dry January on the official program’s website and those who went dry on their own found that those who registered—and had the support of others using the site—were more successful than those who didn’t sign up.
Ditch the Vacuum, But Do the Dishes
“In the laws of physics, nature does not like a vacuum,” Crosby says. That open hand at a party when everyone else is holding cocktails is an invitation for your host to offer you a glass of wine. She suggests filling that vacuum as quickly as you can. If she has to go to an event with alcohol, Crosby first goes straight to the bar and gets a Diet Coke. You’ll never see her out at a social event without a beverage—because it’s simply easier to fill the void than to dodge well-meaning drink pushers all night.
If you’re hydrated and tired of carrying extraneous seltzer around a house party, Crosby suggests you find your way to the kitchen and start working on the dishes. “No one hates the person doing the dishes,” she says, laughing. And it keeps your hands occupied.
Meditate Your Way Through It
If you already have a mindfulness practice going, there’s quite a bit of research showing a few minutes of meditation can help bust a craving. A 2018 paper published in Addictive Behavior, for example, found that patients who were taught mindfulness-based practices reported lower levels of cravings. For most folks, the best thing to do is to acknowledge your desire, and then let the thought go, bringing your attention back to your breath.
Prepare for This to Get Easier
If you took a college psychology class, you probably remember Pavlov and his dog. Like Pavlov’s dog, your brain may anticipate the flow of dopamine the second you walk into a bar, hear a bottle cap plinking onto a countertop, or listen to a cork coming clean from a wine bottle. What many people forget about the Pavlov experiment, Grisel says, is that he also taught his dog to forget the sound-equals-food cue. “It’s called extinction. If you ring the bell five to six times without food, the dog stops salivating,” she explains. In other words, this will get easier. For those first three to four times you hear the cork pop, Grisel suggests making sure you’re in a place surrounded by supportive friends.
Finally, know that Dry January is an excellent exercise for casual drinkers. For the truly alcohol-dependent, however, quitting should be done under a doctor’s supervision. Coming off alcohol after long-term heavy use can cause additional problems, Jaffe says. If you think this might be you, call your doctor before making any serious changes.