By Marybeth Kotrodimos
It’s no surprise that during the pandemic, consumption of alcoholic beverages in our world’s population saw a dramatic surge, right along with deliveries from Amazon and take-out meals. The stress, boredom, fear, and isolation that were by-products of the pandemic drove many people to sooth their nerves and provide a distraction from the tedium of lockdown by drinking more alcohol than usual. April is National Alcohol Awareness Month, and now, more than ever, is a good time to take stock of our drinking and work on developing healthy habits.
We know that the effects of habitual excessive alcohol consumption can be devastating, causing permanent damage to our bodies, our mental health, our relationships, and our ability to provide for ourselves. The World Health Organization has reported that “alcohol influences over 200 health conditions and diseases with an emphasis on cancers, liver cirrhosis, injuries, and DSM-IV alcohol dependence.”
Along with causing myriad medical issues, alcohol abuse impacts us mentally, socially, and emotionally. The hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that plays an important role in memory and learning, becomes impaired when we drink alcohol, affecting our ability to think clearly and remember what we’ve learned. Our behavior and our judgement are impacted, and our emotions can run to extremes, sometimes leading us to greatly embarrass or hurt ourselves and others, causing relationships to erode and careers to become derailed.
Up until fairly recently, in this country and many others, habitual alcohol consumption was addressed with an all-or-nothing approach. You either were or were not considered an alcoholic, and if you were, abstinence was the go-to solution. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was the only widely known program for those who wanted to stop drinking. AA does offer a solid and effective program for living sober through immediate and complete abstinence, and it has helped many people lead better lives. Indeed, AA has, no doubt, saved many lives which may have been cut short due to alcohol abuse. But what about people who are not that far along on the alcohol abuse spectrum, and who, for whatever reason, have found themselves drinking more than usual and would like to develop the skills to drink more mindfully? The concept of alcohol awareness encompasses varied approaches to addressing habitual drinking.
Dr. Adii Jaffe, author of The Abstinence Myth writes, “Only 10% of drinkers who over consume show signs of physical dependence on alcohol, which means for 90% of the population, the opportunity is in building better habits rather than needing to cut out alcohol entirely.” For those who fall into that 90 percentile, he touts an emphasis on “building a new approach” which allows them “to re-balance their relationship with alcohol, on their own terms.”
Gaining popularity at this time are some online programs with tools to help people develop better personal alcohol awareness, or to stop drinking entirely if they choose to do so. These programs are not meant to treat people with severe physical alcohol addiction, which requires more intervention and treatment than they provide. For people who are physically addicted to alcohol, withdrawal, without the guidance of qualified healthcare providers, can be lethal. But for those who generally have drank more moderately in the past but are concerned because the frequency or amount of their alcohol consumption has escalated, there is help for developing healthier drinking habits without abstaining completely. For those who enjoy having an occasional glass of wine, beer, or a cocktail after work or when they socialize, but are finding that they are drinking more heavily and more frequently, especially in this last difficult year, the harm reduction approaches advocated by organizations such as Cutback Coach and Dry January are drawing interest. And there are reports showing them to be effective for those who could benefit from better management of their relationship to alcohol.
Launched in 2020, Cutback Coach is focused on the development of mindful drinking, rather than requiring its participants to strive for a goal of complete abstinence, as 12-step programs like AA do. Participants set up a custom program with individual goals for their reduced alcohol use. Delivered primarily by two-way text messages, this program provides an easy to use format for tracking consumption, as well as maintaining a running calculation of the money and calories saved from drinking less, as measured from a baseline established by participants. A “coach” is available 24/7 by text and email, offering advice and words of encouragement to help participants achieve the health benefits associated with avoidance or reduction of alcohol consumption, including better sleep, weight loss and increasing energy.
“We want to destigmatize the conversation around alcohol, and help people understand how small changes to drinking habits can have a huge impact on their physical and mental wellbeing. We believe just as you don’t need to be extremely out of shape to get benefits from tracking calories and steps, you don’t need to be an extremely heavy drinker to improve your overall health by tracking your alcohol consumption. Our goal is to help people be more mindful about their drinking, especially after the challenges 2020 presented for many of us,” says Cutback Coach CEO and Co-Founder Nick Allen.
Older and better known than Cutback Coach, Dry January is a program which encourages people to abstain or greatly reduce their drinking for the month of January. The concept of abstaining from alcohol in January as a means of jump-starting a healthier relationship with alcohol throughout the year dates back to the 1940s. It gained wide-spread recognition in the US and elsewhere around the globe several years after it went digital for a campaign launched in 2013 by the British charitable organization Alcohol Concern.
Dry January participants download an app on their phones called Try Dry: The App for Dry January and Beyond. They generally begin at the first of the year with a commitment to stop drinking or greatly reduce their alcohol intake for the month, and are encouraged to maintain the tracking and the mindful approach to drinking moving forward into the year. Participants use the Try Dry app to track the progress they make in saving money and cutting calories as they maintain a record of the drinks they consume, or the days they go without drinking. Articles and individual testimonies are posted on the app to help keep participants motivated and informed about the benefits of drinking in moderation or living sober.
There are other organizations which assist people with developing a healthier relationship with alcohol; however, it is widely understood that stress, emotional distress, and other factors affecting our mental health are frequently the underlying causes of habitual drinking, and until they are addressed, they will still be present. If you are feeling overwhelmed and in need of a substance to help cope with daily stress, alcohol can make the problem worse. Getting sober or cutting back to manageable level of consumption is the first step toward improved mental and physical health, but there is no substitute for the intervention and support of good behavioral health provider when it is needed. If you find you are relying too much on substances these days, don’t hesitate to contact a licensed professional.