The struggles of doing 'Dry January' when you're socially anxious

"When you have social anxiety, the first two drinks don't count. They just turn you into a normal person."

Whenever that meme shows up on social media, I always laugh because...yeah...that definitely describes me (although turning me into a "normal" person is probably a stretch. It's more like those two drinks make me stop caring about acting like a "normal" person). And now that I'm in the midst of "Dry January," I'm even more painfully aware of how true this is.  
For those of you who don't know what "Dry January" is, it's when you kick off the New Year by abstaining from alcohol for one month to help reset your body after all the drinking you did over the holidays. My husband's friends have been doing this since I met them, and this year, I decided to join in for the first time. 

After my godmother's death shortly before the holidays, to be honest, I'd been drinking more than usual. I was trying to numb the sadness and trying to still be "fun" at Christmas parties. And I could feel myself getting dependent on it. I knew it wasn't healthy, so I figured this would be a good time to take on the "Dry January" challenge — and also a good excuse if anyone bugged me about why I wasn't drinking. But I didn't know how difficult it'd be, even at only a week and a half in (though, to be fair, I did start on New Year's Eve instead of Jan. 1, which was definitely rough). 

So, what have I learned so far? Well, it's only heightened my awareness of how awkward I can be, and how much I use alcohol as a social lubricant. It's also made me question everything I say before I say it, and it's made me super self-conscious of being boring in conversations. 

I know I'm not alone; it's common for those with anxiety to use alcohol to cope with stress and to help them feel more comfortable in social situations. But it's also important to take a break from alcohol every once in a while for the sake of your health — and to consider cutting it out completely if drinking impacts your everyday life. 

So, if you have anxiety like me, and you're struggling to do Dry January — or Dry February, March, April, May, etc. — what should you do? NOTE: These tips are not for those struggling with alcohol use disorder. If you think you have a problem with alcohol or are having withdrawal symptoms, please talk to your doctor or call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.

First, remind yourself that you'll feel worse before you feel better.

For those who are regular drinkers, a sudden change in this habit will likely cause you to feel irritable and possibly depressed. That's because alcohol does temporarily relieve your anxiety, so when you stop, the hormones rebound and spike to higher levels than before, the New York Times reports. The time it takes to rebalance your hormones varies depending on how much you drink, but, for moderate drinkers, your body's balance will begin to be restored within a few weeks. 

So, while you may feel like throwing in the towel on this challenge by the first weekend of January, remind yourself that you won't feel this way forever. In the long run, drinking to inhibit your anxiety is a vicious circle — drinking to feel less anxious, feeling more anxious because you've been drinking, and then drinking more to stop feeling anxious about drinking. But give it some time and you'll enjoy not waking up with the thought, "Oh no, what did I say/do last night?!" And, once you give it a shot, maybe you'll realize you actual enjoy your conversations with friends more when you're sober (and that you'll be more likely to actually remember what was said). 

If you're struggling more with the societal pressures of drinking than actually not drinking, sometimes it helps to give your hands something else to do (get your mind out of the gutter, I don't mean anything dirty). Sometimes, I struggle at parties just because I don't have a drink in my hand or don't have something to sip when there's a lull in the conversation. But there are plenty of mocktails and non-alcoholic beers that can give your hands something to do and make you feel like you're still part of the fun. 

There's also nothing wrong with avoiding outings at bars if you're struggling. Prioritizing your own mental health is what's most important. With December being go-go-go all the time, I've already slowed down in January, especially since I'm not drinking. I've spent time getting to know myself again and enjoying time by myself. I've been writing more in my journal, watching comfort movies, catching up on text messages and emails, going to the gym, and getting eight to nine hours of sleep each night. 

When you do hang out with friends, there are alternative activities you can suggest doing that don't involve booze, like having a movie or game night, going shopping, going to a fitness class, visiting an exhibit, seeing a play, starting a book club, etc. Bonus: These activities will give you something to talk about — or they'll give you something else to do besides just talking — if you're struggling to be social while being sober. 

But, for me, the thing I worry about most is that I'll be boring if I don't drink. After all, I'm often the first to suggest a round of shots and to order cocktail #2 during a night out. And I realized, after putting together a video recap of my entire 2023, that, in most of the clips I selected, I had been drinking. This made me worried — what if not drinking makes me not as fun?

But, as psychotherapist Amy Morin writes on Very Well Mind, "When you walk into a situation believing that you can’t have fun sober, this is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You might even isolate yourself or hold back from having a good time—which will then reinforce your belief (and others) that being sober makes fun impossible."

"(Instead) enter into the situation with a positive attitude, and make the best of your time, even if you’re the only one not drinking. You might actually find that being sober is more enjoyable than you predicted."

And, to be honest, yes being around a bunch of people who are drunk when you are sober probably won't be as much fun as if you were drunk too. But that's not because you're boring. It's because being drunk numbs your senses to make you think you're having fun. 

Author William Porter writes in his book Alcohol Explained, “Alcohol doesn’t make things more interesting; it makes your mind stupid so that things that would otherwise have bored it are suddenly enough to occupy it.”

Before you knock it, get to know the person you are without alcohol. Spend your weekend mornings doing something productive, instead of staying in bed until late morning/early afternoon with a hangover. Think about the goals you've wanted to achieve that you may have been putting off. Revel in how much healthier you feel when you cut out the 100 to 300 calories per cocktail, and the money you're saving when you're not spending $10 to $15 per drink. 

And, even if you are doing this for only a month, studies show that the benefits last even longer. It provides the opportunity to form new habits and can lead to a significant reduction in alcohol consumption in the future. 

“The objective of Dry January is not long-term sobriety — it’s long-term control,” Richard Piper, the CEO of Alcohol Change UK, the nonprofit that first started Dry January told the Washington Post. “It’s about understanding your subconscious triggers, overcoming those, and learning how good it is to not drink. It gives you the power of choice for the rest of the year.”

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