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Navigating ‘Dry January’ with Mindfulness

Prioritizing your well-being after the holiday season.

One strategy with proven mental and physical health benefits is Dry January, a 31-day hiatus from alcohol consumption and substance use. Although not entirely new, Dry January has gradually gained wider acceptance as a means for evaluating one’s relationship to alcohol and drugs, and their effects on one’s life.

Studies have shown that members of the LGBTQ community are at greater risk of suffering negative consequences from alcohol and substance use. In comparison with cis-het individuals, LGBTQ people are more likely to engage in alcohol, tobacco, and drug use; more likely to develop substance-use disorders; and more likely to suffer from depression or other mental-health conditions, while also struggling with substance use.

These increased risks among LGBTQ people are quite complicated in origin, stemming from numerous personal, familial, and structural factors such as homophobia and transphobia. Despite greater acceptance of LGBTQ persons in our society—at levels ranging from local to global—people who identify as LGBTQ are still subject to discrimination, prejudiced legal systems, trauma, and violence. Ultimately, as members of a community with vulnerability to the negative impacts of alcohol and drug use, it is particularly important to occasionally take time away from substances as a means of promoting overall health.

In addition to lowering the risk of health-related problems, Dry January has several health benefits. Abstaining from alcohol and substances improves sleep, mood, and energy levels; promotes weight loss; and helps with motivation to engage in other healthy activities. Blood chemistries, such as liver enzymes and kidney function tests, can also improve. Plus, there is the possibility of tremendous money savings, creating good financial reasons to make a change.

Where Do I Begin?

It can be scary to even think about embarking on a Dry January. Fears of failure and missing out might immediately spring to mind. Questions about how to approach certain people, relationships, or events can also seem unanswerable. Creating a solid plan and anticipating your own personal challenges is the best place to start.

Step 1: Evaluate your current drinking/substance-use pattern.

Start by examining your current relationship to alcohol and substances. This will give you a sense of any changes you might need to make over the next month. If your first drink of the day is usually during Happy Hour, or if you drink primarily on weekends at the bars with friends, knowing this upfront will help you create strategies for identifying people and situations that might serve as triggers or weaken your resolve.

How will you structure your day to avoid alcohol or substance use? If after school or work is a challenge, are there activities that you can schedule during those times? This is a great place to fold in exercise, mindfulness practices such as journaling or meditation, or engaging in hobbies. Instead of thinking of this as taking away alcohol, consider how you can give yourself the gift of time and presence by doing something fun.

If weekends, bars/clubs, or people are going to be a challenge, consider spending time with friends outside of party settings. Perhaps there are movies or concerts you might like to see, or a visit to one of the museums. Use this time as an opportunity to explore Houston while also getting refamiliarized with your sober self.

One final recommendation: calculate how much money you spend per day on alcohol and substances. You might have to estimate this number by looking at bank or credit card statements to see how much money you’ve spent over the past month. Be sure to include ATM fees and restaurant bills where alcohol was included in the price of the overall meal. Once you know how much money you spend daily, you can use this information as a motivating strategy. Perhaps you can allow this money to collect over the month and then reward yourself in February with a nice purchase.

Step 2: Anticipate withdrawal and craving. It will happen.

Most people don’t recognize that even with occasional alcohol or drug use, the body goes through physical changes when substances are no longer being consumed. While in some cases the effect may be subtle, there may be a few days of not feeling so great. For example, there can be changes in mood, feeling more irritable or anxious, or struggling with insomnia or oversleeping. One’s appetite can also change, with increased food intake and craving for carbohydrates.

Cravings can come as physical sensations or waves of strong desire to engage in substance use that make it seem impossible to say no to alcohol or drug use. In these moments, remember that cravings typically last for only a few minutes, and distraction can be extremely helpful in getting over the hump until they pass on their own.

Knowing about withdrawal and craving is one of your greatest assets, because now you can plan for it. During the first week of January, right after you’ve stopped substance use, what kinds of things can you do to ease the experience of withdrawal? Observe and practice kindness with yourself (and others), since things may be a bit emotionally wonky for a few days. Perhaps these are days where you don’t try to take on too many new projects or activities. Allow yourself to take breaks from others, if necessary. Plan to have foods available that you might like to eat as your appetite adjusts to the lack of alcohol or other substances.

Are there activities that help you calm down? Make a list and have it ready for times when cravings arise. Perhaps exercise or walking, listening to music or a meditation, or taking a hot bath or shower can help to reduce stress and cravings. If you find doing the first thing on your list doesn’t help, keep moving down the list until you realize (almost miraculously) that the craving has passed. It is important to add that people can also be a critical part of any craving-management strategy. Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends or family members who can distract, support, or entertain you—regardless of whether or not they know about your Dry January.

Step 3: Plan for the month, but be flexible.

Take a look at a calendar for the month. Are there days that may be more difficult than others? Perhaps your weekends are particularly challenging, or you have an event such as a birthday or anniversary in the month of January. Think through what might be helpful in staying committed to your health goals.

If attending an event where there will be alcohol, taking a friend who is also not drinking can provide support in the moment as well as a sober set of ears for conversation. If one of your special days takes place in January, what other ways might you commemorate the moment? For better or worse, our society often associates celebration with alcohol and substance use. There are other ways to honor an occasion, however. Give some thought to what might feel personally meaningful and rewarding to you. Just because you’re not drinking for your birthday doesn’t mean you’re not celebrating.

Step 4: Take note and celebrate the change.

Download a Dry January app for your smartphone or plan on keeping a journal or record of your progress. This will help you track changes over the course of the month. Depending on the level of sophistication in your tracking system, not only can you take note of days where you did not drink or use substances, you can also follow how much money you’ve saved, sleep hours, and your daily moods—one of the best pieces of evidence that this change is working is you.

New Year, New Beginning

Each new year offers an opportunity to pause, reflect, and evaluate your lifestyle and wellness practices. Perhaps you set personal health goals last year—some easily attained, others a bit more elusive. Through fits and starts, we refine our overall approach to mind and body, making gradual changes that hopefully lead to continual self-improvement.

Keep the elements of what worked for you last year and learn from past challenges to set the stage for a strong start to the new year. Whether it’s a Dry January, a Dry 2024, or another health goal entirely, proper evaluation and planning can help with establishing and maintaining new behaviors for promoting wellness.

Please note: if stopping alcohol or substance use were to pose a danger or risk due to the development of mental-health symptoms such as suicidal thoughts or physical symptoms that require withdrawal management (detox), then seeking mental-health evaluation and treatment is warranted. Rather than embarking upon a Dry January without appropriate supervision, obtain the guidance of a licensed physician or mental-health clinician.

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Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on the use of psychotherapy and medications to treat mental health and substance use disorders. Dr. Shorter serves as the psychiatrist of record at The Montrose Center and lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health and wellness. Dr. Shorter can be reached at dr.darylshorter@gmail.com.
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