It’s estimated that up to nine million people in the UK planned to take part in Dry January this year, challenging themselves to remain alcohol-free for the first month of the year.
While this may seem like an impressive statistic, there’s little data to indicate how many of these well-intentioned people actually make it through the whole month without picking up a drink.
Alcohol Change, the event’s organiser, maintains that “the official Dry January campaign…does not particularly focus on the degree to which people stay completely dry”, but a 2020 YouGov study found that 29% of people attempting the challenge had lapsed by day ten, with 16% failing by the third day.
So what does this mean for those who clearly want to change their drinking habits but fall at the first hurdle?
The campaign’s website promises ‘a total reset for the body and mind’ for those who manage to stay alcohol-free, which sounds like an alluring prospect. It aims ‘to help people feel more in control of their drinking’ with a long-term aim of ‘changing the drinking culture’ - both laudable goals - but is this really achievable in 31 days?
We asked two members of the Montrose team - Dr. Martha Harrison, Clinical Psychologist, and Rachael McCoy, Recovery Case Manager - for their expert opinion on the topic, and we examine some of the pitfalls and unintended consequences of attempting a month off the booze.
Read on for their honest views on the efficacy of short-term abstinence and what the alternatives are for those who really want to change their relationship with alcohol.
The benefits are temporary
There are indisputable benefits to stopping drinking for a month: better sleep, improved liver function, reduced blood pressure and a clearer complexion are just some of the positive ways in which Dry January can impact your health.
But it’s crucial to remember that these rewards are temporary, and any hard-earned health gains will disappear if your old drinking habits resume in February.
A study by the University of Bristol assessed nearly 3,000 drinkers who took part in the challenge and found that those who pledged to cut back on alcohol during January were drinking just as much as any other drinker six months later.
The study concluded that making a vow to stay dry in January isn’t enough
if you really want to cut your consumption, and this is one of the key issues around people’s expectations of the impact that Dry January will have.
As Montrose’s Recovery Case Manager, Rachael McCoy, explains:
“There’s an assumption that participating in Dry January will automatically lead to a shift in your drinking habits, helping you to reduce your overall intake of alcohol for the rest of the year.
The truth is, long-term, sustainable changes to habits require much more than simply abstaining for a month.
It might be that removing alcohol for a short period highlights some of the reasons you turn to drink, but unless these underlying issues are addressed year-round, the old habits will quickly be resumed and the health benefits are lost.”
The dangers of abstinence-binge cycles
Dry January also risks sending out an ‘all or nothing’ message about alcohol, which can encourage yo-yo behavioural patterns and start a vicious abstinence-binge cycle over the long-term.
As Clinical Psychologist Dr. Martha Harrison explains:
“Restricting often leads you to overcompensate when you have the opportunity. Dry January can have this effect for many, with a surge in drinking the following month that floods, rather than waters, the drought.”
Although not the intention, people may view their 31 days of abstinence as permission to return to hazardous levels of consumption, meaning all their gains are undone.
Failed attempts may lead to ‘rebound effects’, where a person’s alcohol intake actually increases following a period of abstinence.
A study by the University of Sussex found that those who failed to complete the full month were more likely to drink more afterwards than those who made it through the 31 days, with 11% of participants reporting a rebound effect, where they drank excessively as a result of completing the challenge.
Dr. Martha explains that this is known in psychology as the ‘forbidden fruit’ hypothesis:
“People find things more desirable when they are off-limits. Remember back to when you were a child and you were told you couldn’t have any chocolate. What do you do when you finally get hold of some? You scoff the lot when your caregiver isn’t looking, often eating more than you even wanted to.”
Problematic drinkers will likely fail to make it through the whole month without picking up a drink, disincentivising them from seeking further help.
“When undertaking any goal, it is important to set the bar just outside of our comfort zone,” Dr. Harrison says.
“This ensures that the goal remains in sight, motivating us to endure the discomfort and keep going. When we achieve this goal, we get a flood of dopamine (the reward chemical in our brain) which makes us feel good and encourages us to set another.
“When we set the bar too far out of our comfort zone, we increase the chances that we will not reach it. This sense of ‘failure’ then impacts how we feel about ourselves and our potential, making us resistant to setting any goals again.
“For many, Dry January is a stretch just that bit too far out of our comfort zone, resulting in a falling short of the target. A vicious cycle then ensues, with an increase in drinking to soothe the sense of shame.”
Another issue with a time-limited period of abstinence is that it can fuel a sense of denial about the extent of your alcohol dependency.
Successfully avoiding alcohol for a month could make you believe you don’t have a problem with drinking, even if you have low-level dependency or even an alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol Change makes it clear on its website that “if you regularly drink more than the government’s recommended maximum of 14 units of alcohol per week, you may be alcohol dependent, and in this case Dry January is not for you”.
Yet it also reveals that “those who sign up to the official Dry January are heavier drinkers (with an average AUDIT score of 9.1)” - a score that AUDIT describes as “hazardous or harmful alcohol consumption”.
Clearly, many of those attempting Dry January are people who could be considered ‘problem drinkers’. Alcohol dependency is a grey area, ranging from low-level dependence to full-blown alcoholism, and although the campaign encourages those with serious dependency issues to seek professional help, it’s likely that some people who attempt the challenge are doing so to “prove” they don’t have a problem with drinking.
This can be a real problem for those struggling to control their drinking, as Recovery Manager Rachael, explains:
“Many people who come to us for help have convinced themselves that they can’t be alcohol-dependent because they’ve managed to go without drinking for short periods of time.
Often, these bouts of abstinence have been undertaken to prove a point to themselves, and often to others - family members, friends, employers, even - after which, normal service is resumed and their drinking continues to be a problem.
The truth is, alcohol dependency is not black-and-white, and even those who identify as alcoholics have often been able to white-knuckle it without booze for periods of time in an attempt to prove that they didn’t have a problem with drinking.”
Making it through dry January, or even staying sober for several months or a year or more does not necessarily mean you don’t have a problem with alcohol. It means you’re able to stop drinking. And as any alcoholic will tell you: stopping is the easy part, it’s staying stopped that is hard.
“The temptation for problematic drinkers is to complete Dry January and say, ‘job done’, which can be very frustrating for loved ones who are trying to encourage someone to acknowledge their troubled relationship with alcohol.”
What to do instead
The first piece of advice our experts have is to examine your motives for wanting to go dry for a month. If it’s genuinely to improve your health - that’s great, but if it’s simply a gesture to signal that you’ve not got a problematic relationship with alcohol, then Rachael suggest taking an honest look at the reasons you drink in the first place:
“Try to think about the underlying issues that your drinking might be masking. Ask yourself honestly if alcohol is a coping mechanism that needs to be replaced with healthier, less harmful habits.
Reflect on what you feel like when you are sober for a period of time. Do you still experience cravings for alcohol? Do you obsessively think about alcohol when you’re not drinking? If you experience a low mood, anxiety, anger, or other mental health issues without alcohol then it’s time to be honest with yourself and admit that you might need help with your drinking.”
Dr. Martha agrees that a short period of abstinence isn’t the right solution for those seeking help with problematic drinking behaviours:
“We might think of alcohol dependency as a symptom of suffering. Whether suffering stems from the past or the reality of the present, alcohol allows us to numb the experience and life becomes a bit more bearable.
Short-term solutions to alcohol dependency are the equivalent of putting a bucket under a leak and closing the door; we focus on managing the symptoms whilst the cause continues to create problems.
Recovery is a process that invites us to look deeper. We often know this to be true, yet it can be so tempting to return to ‘closing the door’, kidding ourselves that maybe this time the leak will dry out.”
It’s easy to turn to unhealthy coping skills such as alcohol or food to numb negative feelings, but an important part of abstinence and recovery is to feel unwanted emotions and navigate healthy ways to deal with them.
If you’re struggling with your drinking, Montrose can help you make sustainable, long-term changes that will help you to live your life to the full. Our expert team understands that alcohol dependence is a complex issue, and one that requires a solution that is built around your personal situation.
With world-class expertise and lived experience, Montrose’s team will navigate you and your family through challenges around problematic drinking, creating a tailored solution that addresses both the physical dependence and the underlying causes that can equip you with the skills and strategies needed to make meaningful change.
Our compassionate approach means you will be treated with dignity and grace from the outset, and receive gold-standard clinical and therapeutic care throughout your stay and beyond.
Get in touch with Montrose Retreats on +44 (0)1433 350500, or link to our site here to see how we can help.