What Is Dry January?

Dry January is a social challenge that invites participants to reevaluate their relationship with alcohol during the month of January. This can be done by reducing alcohol consumption or outright abstaining from its use.

While this challenge was not created to treat any substance use or behavioral health condition, it is now seen as a way to assess one’s overall wellness going into the new year. Many people include this social challenge in their New Year’s resolutions, including improved eating habits, more exercise routines, and other strategies that focus on improving their overall wellness.

People choose to participate in Dry January for many reasons, with the reason being a personal choice to discover.

Why You Should Consider Doing Dry January

Whether it is having a drink in social settings, like holiday parties or going out for dinner, or drinking after finishing the workday, the amount of alcohol one consumes on average is commonly underestimated. Taking a break from one’s alcohol use can have significant physical and mental health benefits as well as provide an opportunity for deeper reflection on how alcohol is engrained in one’s daily life.

The dangers of alcohol use have become increasingly more prevalent as many people struggled with increased alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alcohol-related deaths became the 4th leading cause of death in the US, with over 140,000 deaths annually. While these figures are significant, they often do not demonstrate the impacts of alcohol on the average person, who generally does not have an alcohol use disorder but still struggles with the consequences that alcohol usage can bring.

Poor sleep, loss of energy, muscle pains, difficulty with blood pressure, skin concerns, as well as financial concerns with frequent spending on alcohol are commonly mentioned as issues people experience after drinking. These experiences are shared by many and have fueled the social interest in becoming more aware of the impact alcohol plays in one’s life.

“Dry January provides the opportunity to review and change one’s drinking behaviors if necessary.”

- Travis Pantiel, Licensed Mental Health Counselor

A study completed in 2014 by the University of Sussex surveyed individuals who self-identified that they engaged in Dry January. The researchers found that over 70% of the participants maintained a reduced level of alcohol consumption (under recommended limits) that lasted an average of 6 months. These results have helped spur an increase in the growth of Dry January as a social challenge and promotion of living a sober lifestyle to maintain one’s overall health.

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Benefits Of Dry January

Here are some examples of commonly reported benefits when alcohol use is reduced or eliminated.

Improved Sleep – Alcohol inhibits the sleep process, which is why many people report poor sleep or feeling tired after a night of drinking. Reducing or eliminating alcohol use results in better, more restful sleep.

Weight Loss – Alcohol is full of calories that are not beneficial for the body, so the body treats them and stores them like fat. Eliminating or reducing alcohol can remove hundreds of empty calories a day.

Increased Energy Levels – Reduced alcohol use allows for improvement in body regulation and energy efficiency.

Improved Mental Clarity – Alcohol impacts multiple areas of the brain, including concentration, risk management, and decision-making. Waking up with a clear head every morning will improve work performance and creativity.

Improved Mental Health – Alcohol negatively interacts with the chemical messengers in the brain that regulate our mental health. Stopping alcohol from impacting the brain guarantees better stress tolerance and more regulated feelings.

Reduced Risk of Health Conditions – Alcohol is classified as a neurotoxin that harms our internal organs, which is what results in the effects of alcohol occurring. Reduced harm to our internal organs (heart, kidney, etc.) reduces the risk of developing chronic health conditions.

Financial Savings – Excessive alcohol use costs Americans $1,526 a year. Spending less money on alcohol leaves you more in your pocket (or maybe even savings).

Who Is Participating In Dry January?

Dry January started as a small community event of 4,000 people that has grown to become a tradition in which millions of individuals across the globe reflect on their substance use. There is limited data regarding the demographics of those who engage in Dry January. However, those who participate have a wide age range. The reasons people choose to participate are often personal for them and focus on some element of wellness in their lives.

Going into 2024, Dry January has grown into a global phenomenon that has helped many individuals rediscover different aspects of themselves through developing new attitudes toward alcohol in their lives. Deciding to better oneself by taking a break from alcohol and reevaluating behaviors is an admirable choice.

However, sometimes it is not always as simple as stopping and unexpected challenges and feelings may arise. Thankfully, there are many helpful strategies and tools to assist anyone looking to make a change in their life.

Strategies And Tools For Success

Whenever I work with my clients on building new healthy behaviors, the most crucial element that must be discussed upfront is their goal. Knowing the specific goal of making a behavior change is essential to maintaining the behavior change.

  • Is the change related to an external need?
  • Is the change related to an internal need?
  • Is the change a mixture of both?

Understanding what is driving someone will help determine how important it is to be accomplished, and what factors can be used as motivation.

Anyone interested in participating in Dry January 2024 will find greater success when their intentions match their goals. One’s goal may influence the importance placed on the challenge of maintaining abstinence from alcohol or perhaps make it more focused on simply reducing the amount of alcohol typically consumed. Acknowledging these questions as one starts their Dry January journey and writing down further questions can be helpful.

When the goal and intention are identified, then the planning can begin!

Sometimes, wanting to engage in a behavior change can feel far more complex than one may have anticipated for various reasons. Fortunately, there are various tools and strategies to help improve one’s odds of success in maintaining one’s wanted behavior change.

Prepare Your Safe Zones

Safe zones are anywhere you know you will need to feel safe and relaxed to achieve your goals. It can be very helpful to remove alcohol from the house and stock it with some of your favorite alcohol-free drinks such as flavored waters, juices, and occasional sodas.

It may be challenging not to engage in alcohol use if you’re living in a home where other house members are drinking around you. So, make sure anyone you live with knows your goal and ask for their support, especially in making the area as safe as possible from temptations.

Substitute Drinks

Some people use non-alcoholic beverages (e.g., non-alcoholic beer, club soda, mocktails) to feel like they are still drinking with others without using alcohol. This strategy can be helpful during social events, especially if you must be around others who inquire about why you’re not drinking alcohol.

However, keep in mind that this strategy is generally not encouraged with individuals who have an alcohol use disorder due to its lack of long-term effectiveness. If you think you or a loved one has an alcohol use disorder, do not wait to reach out for help. There are many treatment options that can provide the professional tools needed to overcome alcohol addiction.

Tell People

Accountability is generally up to the person working on their goals; however, when goals are shared with other supportive people, there tends to be an increased sense of accountability with them.

Friends, family, and other people around you can help remind you of your goals during tough moments when you could use some support. The odds of success can increase if you engage in a weekly update on your goals, as it provides an opportunity for honest reflection for yourself.

Some people like to use social media as a medium to share their experiences. The goal here is to not keep your goal a secret; the more it’s in the open, the more real the experience can feel.

Be Aware Of Temptation

To be tempted is to be human, and one of the first lessons people learn during behavior change is that slip-ups happen when they are least expected. The human brain is a powerful force, often using unconscious aspects to drive motivation, leading to behaviors we did not expect to engage in. However, we are still in charge of our behaviors and actions, so if cravings for alcohol occur, it is important to be mindful of specific temptations or triggers. Some people may only be aware that they experience cravings and triggers once they start Dry January, which is very helpful information to gather and review.

Be Selfish

Being selfish in the context of putting yourself first can be a helpful strategy in achieving your goals. When invited somewhere clearly involving alcohol such as a bar, you may decide to sit this out or even change the location to somewhere less alcohol focused. This strategy sometimes does not sit well with others; however, it’s about putting yourself first for your goals.

Saying No Is OK

Simply saying no to someone offering a drink can feel empowering or even intimidating; some people have little to no problem with this action, and others struggle immensely.

The action of saying no is a statement, meaning there does not need to be a lot of additional information provided. Some may like to include other statements, such as “I’m cutting back on my drinking” or “I don’t drink anymore.” Whichever way you choose to say no is OK, so long as you feel comfortable in your decision. If you feel the need to practice, that is OK! Practice makes progress (nothing is always perfect)!

Self-care

Taking care of yourself will always be necessary; however, making changes that impact how one copes becomes even more important. Self-care can look like many things; the key is finding healthy options that nourish the body and mind.

Taking a soothing bath, listening to your favorite podcast, watching your favorite show/movie, cooking your favorite meals, or even playing with your pets can do wonders for boosting mood and preventing overwhelming feelings from stress. Take your self-care seriously; it is vital to success in life.

Find Support

There are many people out there who are also trying to engage in Dry January. Finding a supportive environment in the form of an online message board, social media group, or even a local group of friends who are also participating can play an essential role in achieving one’s goals.

A safe place to vent about the difficulties experienced, sharing personal “aha” moments that frequently occur, and hearing other’s experiences can be a powerful tool.

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Stay Grounded

Sometimes, social events or stressful life events can lead to feelings of anxiety, which can promote alcohol use to attempt to relax. We know alcohol has sedating effects, which is another reason the brain motivates drinking when there is a feeling of distress.

To combat this distress, engaging in coping strategies like grounding exercises can do wonders in managing distress to help you stay on track to achieving your goals. Some examples of grounding exercises include:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Listen to calming music
  • Move your body
  • Recite statements or affirmations

Journaling

One of the most powerful tools at our disposal is the ability to write about our experiences. It is a fundamentally impactful way to challenge our thoughts and reflect on our experiences, usually leading to new perspectives.

“I encourage many clients to use journaling to monitor their health and process their experiences to better understand themselves.”

- Travis Pantiel, Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Journaling can be a beneficial strategy during Dry January. The ability to document one’s experience of reducing alcohol use and identify any associated patterns with it provides important information that most people wouldn’t have otherwise known without journaling. It is powerful and encouraged. Some journaling prompts include:

  • Why am I doing Dry January?
  • How is alcohol involved in my life?
  • Who do I have in my corner for help?
  • How does alcohol fit into my life goals?
  • How do I use alcohol? How can I not use it?

Technology Options

Many virtual options have been created to help with behavior changes. The most common element is the daily tracking of behaviors such as alcohol consumption, mood, food intake, and sleep for the day. Tracking this information within an organized system, such as an app, can make it easier to analyze your experience and identify any critical areas of concern.

It is also a great daily reminder to focus on your goals through notifications. The Alcohol Change UK foundation (who created Dry January) recently put out an app called “Try Dry” to assist with monitoring all of these factors and more. There are also many other apps out there; check your device’s app store to find one you like.

Take It One Day At A Time

As with any behavior change, slip-ups can happen. Truthfully, it is far more common for someone to fail at changing a behavior before they are successful. If you experience a slip-up and have a drink, for whatever reason, it’s OK. That is just more information for you to try again the next day.

This challenge is meant to provide information and new perspectives, not cause guilt or shame. Be sure to talk to yourself with compassion as you explore new ways to live your life. “I am working on a different me” is much more helpful than “I can’t get anything right.” The less we use an “all or nothing” way of thinking, the more we can observe our achievements rather than our failures.

Find Professional Help

Dry January is intentionally not for anyone who has experienced an alcohol use disorder, as there are far more significant challenges associated with achieving sobriety than someone without an alcohol use disorder.

Some individuals who decide to reduce their alcohol use begin to recognize that they may have a deeper problem with alcohol than they initially realized. If someone experiences withdrawal symptoms from stopping their alcohol use, then this becomes a serious medical concern. Seeking professional help is highly recommended. Talk to a treatment provider today; they can discuss treatment options with you and help you enroll in a licensed treatment program.

Withdrawal symptoms often require medical professionals at a local treatment center to assist in reducing the severe risk of harm. Other symptoms commonly seen with alcohol use disorder, such as increased anxiety, depression, or impulsivity issues, would benefit from working with a behavioral health professional who can assist in thoroughly assessing and identifying a plan for treating the condition.

Have A Successful Dry January!

In my experience, Dry January has helped my clients by providing them with new ways of experiencing social events, appreciating conversations more than drinking, learning who their “drinking buddies” were vs. “true friends,” enjoying less drama in their friendships that occurred more often with alcohol in the mix, as well as promoting a sense of autonomy in their lives.

Now, that does not mean that they stopped drinking alcohol forever (though some did make that choice). However, it did allow them to pay more attention to their reasoning for having a drink and how much alcohol they wanted to incorporate into their experience. I have yet to hear anyone regret participating in Dry January, and I hope that others have the opportunity to reflect on their well-being in the new year.

When participating in a challenge like Dry January, success may be as simple as abstaining from alcohol for 31 days. For others, success often feels much more transformative and changes how they see alcohol in their world moving forward. Regardless of how you choose to define success, the journey is often more impactful than the destination.

For those participating this year, we hope you succeed in achieving your goals, and for those who find more challenges than expected, many types of support are available for you. For anyone asking for additional help, please don’t hesitate to reach out today.

Last Updated:

Author

Travis Pantiel, LMHC, MCAP

Photo of Travis Pantiel, LMHC, MCAP
  • Travis Pantiel is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a National Board-Certified Counselor with specialized expertise in the co-occurring disorder treatment field.

  • More from Travis Pantiel, LMHC, MCAP

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