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‘Sober curious’? How to embrace mindful drinking

‘Sober curious’? How to embrace mindful drinking
A growing moderation movement harnesses strategies from meditation to cut back on alcohol.

The Indian Express
By Dani Blum, New York Times
December 27, 2021

Dry January — or Drynuary, for the initiated — offers your body and mind a chance to reset and reflect after the seasonal bloat and weariness. For a vocal movement, the approach of scaling back drinking to live more fully in the moment can, and should, happen year-round. Rather than cutting out alcohol entirely, though, a growing number of people are “sober curious,” exploring elements of a booze-free lifestyle without fully abstaining.

“Mindful drinking,” a phrase and philosophy that brings the self-reflection of meditation to a glass of wine or beer, has become increasingly commonplace in recent years, said Rosamund Dean, a journalist in London who published a book based on the term in 2017. She wanted to become more intentional about her relationship to drinking, she said, instead of seeing alcohol as a habit or a crutch.

“It was going to the work event where there was nasty, cheap white wine and knocking it back,” or “putting the kids in bed after a busy day and cracking a bottle open,” she said. “It’s the drinking you do without really thinking about it.” Mindful drinking, by contrast, means “bringing awareness to your behaviors in terms of your decision to drink alcohol”: for example, tallying how many cocktails you consume in a given night, or paying close attention to why, where and when you’re drawn to drinking.

This moderation mind-set might particularly appeal to people searching for ways to scale back on troubling habits they developed during the pandemic. Studies have shown a dramatic increase in problematic drinking over the last year, especially among women. As the pandemic slogged on, “We had a real spike in people coming to us,” said Millie Gooch, who founded the Sober Girl Societycollective in 2018. The community connects sober and “sober curious” women for events like “boozeless brunches” and virtual breakfast discussions.

Ruby Warrington, a writer in New York, started using the term “sober curious” five years ago. At the time, she said in an interview, her drinking habits appeared to be under control: She never blacked out, or even drank more than two nights in a row. But she drank more than she wanted to, she didn’t feel able to say no. Ms. Warrington craved a middle-ground approach to drinking: the ability to interrogate her relationship to alcohol without ending it completely. In 2018, she published “Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol,” articulating the philosophy behind what she calls “choosing to question” her impulse to imbibe. Ms. Warrington says that interrogating one’s drinking habits often leads people to adopt more mindful drinking strategies.

“Collectively, we’ve inherited this story about alcohol that the only way to change your drinking is if you’ve hit rock bottom,” said Dru Jaeger, co-founder and director of programs at Club Soda, an online community that sprouted up nearly seven years ago in Britain. The group hosts online and in-person social events without alcohol, as well as free and paid programs that teach members how to reduce their drinking habits. About half of Club Soda’s over 70,000 members are interested in moderating their drinking, rather than in becoming entirely sober. The group has seen consistent growth, particularly in the United States, in recent years, as well as more interest from people in their 20s concerned about the toll drinking takes on their mental health.

There is limited scientific evidence on the efficacy of using mindfulness to moderate drinking behaviors. A 2017 study of 68 heavy drinkers in Britain found that those who received 11 minutes of mindfulness instruction reduced their alcohol consumption significantly the next week. This “microdose of meditation” may have helped participants regulate their emotions, encouraging them to rely on mindfulness when they might otherwise turn to alcohol to cope with stress, said Sunjeev Kamboj, a psychology professor at University College London and the lead author of the study.

The mindful drinking approach also draws on similar strategies to cognitive behavioral therapy, a psychological intervention used to address depression and anxiety, said Kenneth Stoller, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. By encouraging people to identify the impact alcohol has on their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, mindful drinking can be an effective tool for people interested in reducing their alcohol consumption, he said, but not for anyone with a severe drinking problem or alcohol-use disorder.

Some experts and “sober curious” veterans offered tips for becoming more thoughtful about alcohol.

Stop and reflect

Ms. Warrington recommends that people interested in cutting back remove alcohol from their lives for an extended period, typically between 30 and 100 days. That hiatus is an opportunity for reflection, she said. Ask yourself about the role alcohol plays in your life and the moments throughout your daily routine — the weekend dinner with friends, the TV episode before bed — that most make you crave it, and find other ways to fill in the gaps.

Dr. Stoller advises thinking through what you like and don’t like about drinking. Is it the taste of alcohol that draws you in? The bodily sensation of a buzz? Identify the amount of alcohol you typically consume to induce a certain effect, and then consider the facets of drinking you enjoy less, like hangovers or the sense of losing control. Articulating these aspects of your drinking life can help you form realistic guidelines for cutting back, he said.

Make a plan

Drinking narrows our focus on the world, Dr. Stoller said, creating what some psychologists call “alcoholic myopia” — we focus only on the present moment. That’s why it’s crucial to establish a plan for mindful drinking ahead of time, he said. This can include drinking with a friend who’s also practicing mindful drinking, making sure you eat while you’re drinking and asking the bartender to use half the amount of alcohol in a cocktail. These tricks will slow the rate of alcohol entering your system, he said, which can help you be more intentional about the drinks you do choose to consume.

Ms. Dean sticks to what she calls the rule of three: three drinks or less, no more than three nights each week. Often, she ends up drinking less than that, she said, and the hard limit prompts her to savor each beverage.

Ask questions

Don’t take booze for granted. If you are going to drink, make it a conscious, deliberate choice. Think about whether alcohol will add value to your experience — what difference will drinking make to your time at a party or your night at the bar? And if you’re drinking to try to enjoy an event where you’re not having a good time, consider just going home.

Ms. Gooch encourages those new to mindful drinking to keep asking questions about the motivating factors behind their alcohol consumption — like the friends with whom they drink the most, and the situations that tempt them to head to the bar.

“If you really want to have a glass of wine, have a glass of wine,” Ms. Warrington said. But pay attention to the sensation of drinking it. How does the wine taste? What prompted you to crave alcohol? How do you feel the next day? “Stay curious,” she said.