How To Cut Back On Drinking Alcohol If It Makes You Feel Like Crap

It’s one thing to say you’ll drink less and another to do it. These hacks can help.

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A man outdoors drinking beer, with two more beers on the table.

Whether you’re soaking up the sangria in summer or taking the edge off of family gatherings during the winter holidays, drinking is a habit that can be hard to break any time of year. This could also be the perfect time of year to cut back on drinking, especially if it’s taking a toll on your mental or physical health, or if you’re worried about holiday heart syndrome.

How to Know If You Should Cut Back on Drinking

If you’re a regular drinker, it’s never a bad idea to take stock of your relationship with alcohol and make sure it’s working for you, says George Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). If you’re not sure where to start, Koob suggests asking yourself two important questions.

First, how does drinking make you feel? Alcohol consumption can have a negative effect on your mood, energy levels, and more in ways that can be difficult to notice over time. “If you feel better when you’re not drinking, your body is trying to tell you something,” Koob says. Taking just a few days off can tell you a lot, particularly if you feel a lot better when you’re not drinking.

If you notice that you’re drinking despite not loving the way it makes you feel, Koob says, “the second step is to ask yourself why you’re drinking. What are the reasons you drink, and what are the conditions under which you have another?”

“Drinking may temporarily help with issues like stress and pain — maybe even depression,” Koob says. “But it’s only going to make it worse when it wears off.”

If your drinking behaviors are interfering with your daily activities, or if you suspect you may be suffering from alcohol use disorder, the best thing to do is seek professional help. For others, however, an interrogation of your drinking habits may simply reveal more low-risk patterns that you’d like to change for any number of reasons, such as getting in better shape or staying sober in social situations.

Taking a break from alcohol, even temporarily, can have huge benefits. Recent studies have found that just a month of sobriety can help people sleep better, lose weight, and more during their abstinence. Long-term changes can help with issues such as anxiety and communication in interpersonal relationships.

But changing your habits doesn’t have to follow a template. Though “Dry January” and other month-long sobriety vows have become a popular way to press reset on your relationship with alcohol, approaches like setting yourself a maximum number of drinks per week or abstaining on weekdays can lay the groundwork for long-lasting habits. By choosing an approach that feels the most reasonable and impactful for you, you’re more likely to succeed.

5 Smart Hacks for Drinking Less

Once you’ve decided to make a change, there are a number of helpful strategies that can help you get there. They don’t need to be difficult — cutting back on drinking can be simple if you approach it the right way.

1. Keep a Log

No matter what your goals are, start out by keeping a log. “Chart when and how much you’re drinking,” Koob suggests. “That alone sometimes is enough to get people to cut back.” Writing down each drink will help you stay accountable no matter your goals, and it can be helpful to take a look at your habits over time.

2. Make Sobriety Buddies

Connecting with others who are working to engage more mindfully with alcohol can build accountability into your routine and help you stay motivated. This type of support can come from a friend or partner, or from a much larger group.

Thanks to the rising popularity of the so-called sober-curious movement, finding a community that resonates with you doesn’t have to be intimidating. Apps with digital communities like Sober Grid and Loosid can be great places to start, but to really step outside your comfort zone, consider looking for a trendy sober bar in your area where you can enjoy a zero-proof cocktail and chat people up in a less formal and structured setting. For structured, in-person groups focused on sobriety, check out a list of the resources available on the NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking website.

3. Drink Water

Koob’s overall favorite tool for fighting the urge to drink is a bit more analogue: “Water. Stay hydrated,” he says. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that even though it’s a beverage, your body becomes more dehydrated as you consume it. Because of this, the best way to neutralize negative impacts drinking, both short-term (like a hangover), or long term (like sleep issues), is to load your body back up on water. This is an especially helpful tip if you tend to turn to alcohol when you’re upset or in a funk: Dehydration itself can cause mild cognitive impairment, which means that even after the booze has worn off, its aftereffects can have you craving more if you don’t rehydrate.

4. Remember: One Drink Is All You Need

What about those moments where you’re really craving a second drink you told yourself you wouldn’t have? It’s important to remind yourself, says Koob, that the benefits you might be looking for — relaxation, relieving some tension — are pretty much maxed out with a first drink. In terms of unwinding, “two doesn't double what one does, and four doesn't quadruple it,” he says. “It’s easy to end up chasing this relaxation like a gambler chasing their losses, and it doesn't work very well.”

5. Recognize the Benefits of Cutting Back

Don’t forget to track the positives as they come. Once you’ve made a change, “if your interaction with your kids and your significant other is better, then that's telling you something,” Koob says. Holding on to those moments where you feel your best can help you strengthen your willpower for when you need it most.

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