If you’ve ever woken up at 3 a.m. (then again at 4:30 and 5:47) with hangxiety — that post-drunk, pre-sober psychological state of dread-filled limbo when you question your life choices — then you’ve probably questioned whether you should cut back on drinking. You may not want or need to give it up entirely, but you may be ripe to pursue a new relationship with adult beverages.
And you wouldn’t be alone. A 2019 Nielsen IQ survey revealed that 47% of U.S. consumers above age 21 were making efforts to reduce their alcohol consumption (this number shot up to 66% among Millennials). There’s plenty of space between sobriety and an alcohol problem — which is where mindful drinking comes in.
What is mindful drinking?
So what exactly is mindful drinking, beyond, well, thinking while drinking? Dru Jaeger, co-founder of Club Soda, a UK-based organisation with more than 50,000 members that offers courses and events for people looking to change their relationship with alcohol, says it’s “paying attention to your drinking habits, noticing what’s happening in and around you when you drink” and putting alcohol in its place so that it doesn’t take up so much of your time and energy.
It’s not necessarily about quitting entirely (though this could be your eventual outcome), but rather it’s about taking the time to evaluate your alcohol consumption habits and consciously shift those that no longer work for you.
Is “mindful drinking” the same as “sober curious”?
Kind of. You may have heard the buzzword “sober curious” bandied about since author Ruby Warrington published her 2018 book of the same title. While the two ideas are related, Laura Willoughby, who co-founded Club Soda with Jaeger, told Cosmopolitan being “sober curious” was “almost like the pre-cursor to actively engaging in mindful drinking.” While the sober curious are beginning to reflect on their relationship with alcohol, “Those who are mindful drinkers are actively doing so, or are taking action following a contemplative period.”
How to get started with mindful drinking
If you think it might be time to re-evaluate your relationship with booze, the first step is to observe your patterns. Where are you (and who are you with) when you drink? Do your home and social spaces make drinking nearly effortless? What and when do you usually drink the most? Which types of drinking don’t add value to your life? It could be that an occasional night out with friends leaves you feeling connected, while drinking alone at home has the opposite effect (and is harder to control). Keep an eye out for patterns, which will offer clues on which behaviours you should work on changing first.
The name of the game is not fixing everything at once, Jaeger says, it’s “starting with achievable changes, like taking regular breaks from drinking” or substituting alcoholic drinks for alcohol-free versions (anything labelled as 0.5% ABV or less). Willoughby adds that abstaining from alcohol for an initial period of one to three months can give people the clarity they need to interact with alcohol in a new way.
Some tips for sticking with mindful drinking
If you’ve decided to approach drinking differently and have taken baby steps to get started, one of the best ways to shore up those positive habits is with self-imposed rules. Things like I will only drink on weekends; I will no longer drink alcohol alone; when I go out, I will start with two non-alcoholic drinks before having deciding if I want to have alcohol; I’ll alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and so on.
Make concrete plans and exit strategies for situations you know might be difficult. (And have a comeback ready to answer the most common prying questions non-drinkers get asked.)
Telling friends and building a support network of accountability also goes a long way towards keeping you on the mindful drinking wagon. Reach out and connect with others for support, join a community or online group to chat about resources, encourage your goals, and remind you that you’re not alone.
And finally, list out all the positives you’ve enjoyed since cutting back on drinking — things like uninterrupted sleep, clear-headedness, and relief that you’re able to exercise, run errands, and tidy up the house rather than simply nursing nausea and a brain-splitting headache on a Sunday afternoon.
(Jaeger notes that for some who are physically dependent on alcohol, suddenly stopping can be dangerous. But most people can cut down gradually without medical supervision. If you’re worried about your drinking or the effects of changing your habits, talk to your doctor.)