Ready to stop drinking, or looking to cut back? Here are some tips and tools to help.
You would be surprised at just how many people type “How to quit drinking” (or some variation) into a search engine. That doesn’t mean that every one of those people has alcohol use disorder. Some of them have been in a phase of heavy drinking and aren’t sure how to get out of it, some people are starting to be concerned about their drinking and looking for insights, and some people are Googling on behalf of a loved one. And some people are desperately seeking a way to stop drinking, because they can’t seem to do it on their own.
No matter why you’re interested in the topic of quitting drinking, we have some tips and strategies to help.
Tips for quitting drinking:
Consider looping in your doctor
If you drink occasionally, you should be able to stop without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. But if you’ve been drinking heavily or have been drinking for a long time, alcohol detox is no laughing matter. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can start as soon as 6 hours after your last drink and last for 4-5 days. They range from headache and sweating to hallucinations to the possibility of death. (Learn more about alcohol detox here.)
So. If you’ve been drinking heavily—which the CDC defines as 8 or more standard-sized drinks per week for women or 15 or more drinks per week for men—it would be wise to talk to your healthcare provider before you stop drinking. If that isn’t an option for you, make sure you’re not alone while you’re detoxing, so that the person staying with you can call for help if you have dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Examine your “Why” (and keep it front of mind)
Why do you want to quit drinking? This answer varies a great deal from person to person. Here are a few that I’ve heard:
- My family/friend/significant other thinks I drink too much.
- I don’t like the way I act when I’ve been drinking.
- I can’t afford another DUI.
- I keep ending up in situations that I don’t like when I drink.
- My drinking is impacting my health.
- I’m miserable, and I think my drinking is part of that unhappiness.
- I’m falling down on my responsibilities.
- I want to take better care of myself.
- I have mood swings based on whether I’m sober, drunk, or hungover.
- I’m spending too much on alcohol.
- I have loved ones with alcohol use disorder, and their situation is making me look at my own drinking.
This list could go on and on! Whatever your Why is, keep it clear in your mind. It can be helpful to write it down. Some people even put a Post-it with their Why on their bathroom mirror, or keep it in their wallet. Remembering your Why will give you a boost if it gets hard to turn down a drink.
Fill your time
If you’re sitting around bored, you are far more likely to give in to the urge for a drink than if you stay occupied. Use this as an opportunity to try out new hobbies and activities, or to renew old ones. I know people who took up pottery, gardening, and kickball when they stopped drinking. Our Community Manager Max shared a blog post about the joy they get from geocaching.
Your activities could be physical (like swimming, hiking, or sports) or creative (like painting, writing, or playing music). You could take up games (video games, board games, or tabletop games) or cooking. Start solo activities or spend more time hanging out with your favorite people. Whatever you choose to fill your time, pick things that you don’t associate with alcohol, and that won’t put you in constant contact with drinking or people who are inebriated.
Many of us never learned healthy coping strategies for our stress, fear, or anger. For some, this has led to a tendency to “unwind” with alcohol. How many times have you heard, “I need a beer after this!” or “Man, this is going to be a three-drink night.”? If you are used to leaning on alcohol for relaxation or de-stressing, it’s important to learn healthier ways to manage your stress. Here are a few things that may be helpful:
- Take breaks from social media and from the news as needed.
- Do things that make you happy or proud.
- Try breathwork, yoga, meditation, and meditative activity.
- Move your body.
- Get enough sleep.
- Detach from work when you’re off the clock.
- Share your feelings with people you trust.
- When possible, get away from the source of your stress, at least for a while.
- Check out support groups or therapy.
Tell people you’re not drinking
Tell the people around you that you’re making a change to how you drink. You can frame this as taking care of your health or as growing out of old habits. This explains your change without implying judgment of others for their own drinking and without inviting scrutiny.
Being open about this decision will make it less likely that your loved ones will accidentally sabotage your efforts by offering you drinks. It can also bolster you if and when you need to say no to a drink. You can also ask trusted friends to support your decision, offer backup, and provide accountability. (As long as you don’t put the responsibility for your actions on their shoulders.)
Connect with others in recovery
This is a big one! The support of other people who understand what you’re dealing with can be immeasurably powerful. They can provide sympathy, inspiration, friendship, validation, and guidance. That’s one of the reasons that AA is so popular, but there are tons of other fellowships, programs, and mutual support societies. Click here for a list of popular groups, including links. Members of Workit Health also have access to online recovery groups, both led by counselors and peer-support groups.
Consider your triggers
Regular drinking affects your brain. One of the ways this happens is the development of neural pathways that connect certain places, people, situations, times of day, smells, or emotions with the anticipation of alcohol and its effects. These become triggers. Even when you’ve made the decision to stop drinking, one of these triggers—an argument, a particular meal, an empty stretch of time on a Saturday afternoon, a song, etc.—will generate a craving or a vivid flashback to drinking.
Identifying your triggers will let you plan how to navigate them. Some of these you will be able to avoid, while others you will need to learn how to cope with. Take the time to plan ahead of time so that your triggers don’t take you off-guard.
Remove the alcohol from your living space
No matter how firm your resolution to stop drinking may be, it will be easier to keep it if you don’t have alcohol in the fridge or cupboard.
Use coping tools for cravings
- Play the tape through—When you’re considering a drink, play a mental movie that follows the probable outcome of taking that drink, based on your past experience. Personally, one was never enough, so a single drink would be disappointing and lead to me wanting more. I would end up spending a lot on alcohol, breaking promises to myself and my family, and possibly creating other consequences. Imagining this storyline helps me resist a drink when cravings strike.
- Do something that takes your attention—Puzzles, word games, video games, and physical tasks that require close attention are all good options. The goal here is to occupy your mind long enough for the craving to pass (and it will pass).
- Wait it out—Cravings are temporary. Set a timer and commit to not drinking for the next X amount of time, whether that’s 5 minutes, 15 minutes, or an hour. If necessary, you can reset the timer when the time is up.
- Help someone else—Helping others is an oddly effective way to combat cravings. This can be official volunteering/service work, or it can just be an act of kindness. You could even call a friend or family member and ask them about their day.
Tips for cutting back on your drinking:
Maybe you’re not interested in quitting drinking right now, but you do want to cut back. Many of the tips above will be relevant for you, too, and the ones below can help you moderate your alcohol consumption
Set your goals
Decide what your goal is. Be specific, make it measurable, and put it in writing.
Don’t just say, “I want to drink less.” Say something like, “I will drink no more than 2 standard drinks per day, no more than 2 days a week.” Or, “I’ll only have one drink with dinner, and then stop for the night.” Making your goal specific will make it more difficult for you to fudge it.
Track your drinks
It’s pretty common for people to be unable to accurately report how much they had to drink on any given day. Maybe they don’t gauge their pours very carefully, maybe they lose track over the course of an evening, maybe someone else was keeping their glass full, maybe they black out and can’t recall much about the occasion at all.
When you’re ready to cut back, it’s important to knuckle down and start tracking how much you’re actually drinking. Rethinking Drinking from the NIAA has some useful calculators. There are also a lot of apps that will help you track your drinks, like Drink Control (iOS only) or Reframe.
Take cash only
When you go out for drinks, take only enough cash to cover your tab and leave your credit and debit cards at home. I know, I know—in this day and age, there are digital ways to pay. This is a strategy to help you be mindful of your drinking and help you stick to your preset limits, but it won’t force you to abide to that limit if you become determined to break it.
Alternate alcohol with water or soft drinks
It can be easier to stick to your drinking goal if you are careful to pace yourself. Try to drink slowly instead of slamming an alcoholic beverage, and have something non-alcoholic in between.
Tips for long-term recovery
Reflect on positive changes
Take the time to appreciate the positive changes in your life when you reduce or stop your drinking. Some common areas of improvement are:
- Financial—Not only are these folks spending less on alcohol (which can add up shockingly quickly), but also on rideshares, rounds for the table, and impulse spending while inebriated.
- Physical—After the discomfort of withdrawal is over, there are a lot of health benefits to drinking less or not drinking. These include healthier liver functioning, a reduced risk of some cancers, possible weight loss, clearer focus/less brain fog, better sleep, and improved energy.
- Social—Many people find that reducing their alcohol intake also reduces conflict with the people in their lives, and improves the quality of time spent together.
- Professional—I often hear from people who are surprised to find that they are more effective and reliable at work (and get along better with their coworkers) when they drink less or stop drinking.
Meeting your drinking goals can be difficult, and it’s important to acknowledge that and celebrate the successes you reach along the way. The concept of tracking time in recovery can be controversial (see Robin McIntosh’s post about this), but many find it incredibly meaningful to be able to say, “I stuck to my drinking goal for 6 weeks,” or “I haven’t had a drink in three months.”
The need for community in recovery doesn’t evaporate when you get a few months between yourself and your last drink. Keep going to meetings or counseling, keep taking part in your recovery program, keep talking with others who understand, and keep seeking and providing guidance. In fact, being the experienced person who has insights to share with a newcomer can help us to feel confident and purposeful in recovery.
What if you can’t quit drinking?
The suggestions above are things that have helped many people quit or limit their drinking. But for others, tips like these just aren’t enough. If you try to control your drinking and cannot manage it, there is still hope. Workit Health offers a program for alcohol that includes therapeutic courses, recovery groups, audio shares, and clinical care not only for alcohol use, but also for co-occurring anxiety or depression. If Workit Health isn’t for you, look into another recovery program—whether that is in-person or online, residential treatment or IOP, medication or support group. There are options, and you are worth trying them.