Has your dry January started badly? Have you already had a drink? Are you feeling disappointed in yourself? Are you wondering whether to get back on the wagon or not? Did you want to do something about your drinking, but a dry January didn't seem possible? Well, here’s a much better proposal. And it can even have a more profound and long lasting effect. Plus, it may very well feel less overwhelming.
Using some straightforward strategies to moderate your drinking on a daily and weekly basis will change your relationship to alcohol and are more likely than abstaining for one month to work in the longer term.
That’s not to say moderating is easy. The TV and radio presenter, Adrian Chiles, famously tackled his over-drinking last summer in a popular BBC documentary. He then updated us on his progress in a Guardian article in December. Chiles points out that his choice to drinking moderately, instead of abstaining, was by no means the ‘cop-out’ that some might regard it as. On the contrary, moderation ‘requires constant thought; hundreds of decisions have to be made every week.’ He’s not wrong. Following a YouGov poll, Public Health England announced last September that ‘two thirds of regular drinkers say that cutting down on their drinking is harder than improving diet or exercise’.
It’s important to say upfront that moderating, like dry January, isn’t an option everyone. For many heavy or dependent drinkers, a medically assisted detox, followed by an extended period of abstinence, needs to be the priority. That’s a different article, but broadly speaking, if you’re drinking 3 or 4 drinks, or more, every day, cutting down or stopping suddenly could be dangerous. Consult your GP if you think this is you.
In my counselling practice, both private and for the NHS, I frequently help those who are struggling with alcohol problems and underlying emotional issues. Part of this work involves supporting those who wish to moderate their drinking.
Although I’ve never been alcohol dependent myself, I have had very long periods of daily drinking and over-drinking. In my 40s - I am now 51 - I started to moderate my drinking, and experience the physical and mental health benefits. The process also highlighted the things I didn’t miss about drinking so much: poor sleep, moodiness, anxiety, flatness, sweating, smelly farts and messy poos. Understanding the pitfalls and difficulties of working towards and maintaining moderation, now helps me in my work with those who want to do the same.
Some of my patients and clients are social and casual over-drinkers. They never drink in the morning, but they are drinking too much and too often, in the afternoon and evening. If they continue to drink at the same rate, it will impact negatively on their health - that’s if it isn’t doing so already.
The over-drinkers often tell me that they just want to drink like normal people, so in counselling we will talk about what these normal drinking habits look like. People generally do think about what they drink. Just as they think about what they eat, and how much they exercise and sleep. The normal drinking life, though, is a hard sell to some when they release the effort it takes. The key is to adopt the moderating strategies that work for you and, if you slip up or over indulge, reflect on the reasons why, learn from them, and get back on track. Here are fifteen tips and strategies:
19 tips for Moderate Drinking
1. Counting units
One of the tests of whether moderation is an option for you, is whether you can honestly and accurately count, not just your drinks, but the units of alcohol you consume. This is best done on a daily basis and reflected on at the end of the week, and month. This involves either using an smartphone app or calculating your unit consumption on paper using this equation:
Volume (ml) x ABV (Alc %) divided by 1000 = units of alcohol
Example: 568ml (pint) x 5% ABV (beer) = 2840, divided by 1000 = 2.84 units of alcohol
When I began moderating, I chose the smartphone app. I stopped using it after two years because my drinking had become consistent, predictable, and moderate. These days, I don’t need to record units but I still think about what I drink, in units. I even get pissed occasionally - on not much alcohol - and I always return to moderation. What I didn’t have to face to any great extent that some of my clients and patients do when counting units, is guilt and shame. These feelings stymie this process, and need exploring through counselling.
2. How much is moderate?
Another important decision is how many units a week you are aiming to maintain. For many, the UK Chief Medical Officer’s recommended 14 units a week for both men and women, is too much to achieve - at least at first. For some, double this is doable, and a hell of a lot less than they are drinking. Whatever amount you decide upon, based on this decision and your daily monitoring, you need to do some anticipating of your week’s diary and social events, and you need to consider how you are going to manage unexpected social events that may pop up at a point that you’ve already consumed your week’s allowance of units, or on a non-alcohol day.
3. Dealing with peer pressure
One of the main problems with maintaining moderate drinking habits is peer pressure. Having a partner who is not moderating, or friends or colleagues that aren’t, can add the temptation to drink when you hadn't planned to, or to drink more than you intended. Sometimes the pressure is spoken, and sometimes it’s in the mind of the moderator; either way, it adds further challenges, especially for people pleasers and those who suffer with FOMO (fear of missing out), or struggle with self-discipline.
4. Explaining yourself and declining drinks
A difficulty for many is explaining the reason behind their moderate drinking, to others, including your friends. This is embarrassing for some people, as it draws unwanted attention and stupid comments. I know from my own experience of ordering half-pints and asking bartenders about alcohol content, that you have to manage idiotic remarks and funny looks about just this quite a lot of the time. There are also those who tell you to have another drink, to contend with. This is one of the hardest tests you will face. It will help to talk to a counsellor if saying no’ is difficult to do, or if you worry unduly about what other people think and say. In general, people - normal people, anyway - don’t really care what you do. It’s actually often a talking point.
5. Alcohol-free days
The other thing to consider to help exercise moderation, is alcohol-free days. These are a big challenge for some. I recommend that my moderating clients and patients take at least a few alcohol-free days in the week, starting with one and building up to 3 or 4, preferably consecutive days.
6. Alcohol-free drinks
Another strategy that is becoming more commonly adopted by moderators, is drinking more non-alcoholic drinks. The technology behind these drinks has greatly improved in the last few years, and this is evident in the taste and the range of beers, gins and wines now on the market. Unfortunately, most pubs and bars don’t serve a very good range. The best range can be found in your local supermarket.
7. An alcohol-free home
Making a decision to only drink socially, i.e., not at home, is also a helpful moderation strategy. This is made easier if you can stop bringing alcohol into your home. The stumbling block to this may be that walking past the alcohol aisle in the supermarket can be as much of a challenge as walking past the pub.
Looking at your relationship with alcohol, and your family's, currently and historically, is a useful process if you have never done it before. Looking at the reasons you drink is also helpful; thinking about why you are having each drink is a good place to start: is it a coping drink? What do you have to cope with? Does it really help you cope? Is it a drink for pleasure? If so, when does the pleasure end? Is it a drink someone else wants you to have? If so, why did you say ‘yes’ to it?
If you are someone who already exercises, increasing the amount or regularity of your exercise will likely make you feel like drinking less and undoing all your hard work, self-discipline and self-care.
10. Medically supported moderation
There are a few medical options available to those who can find a specialist doctor to support their aim to moderate their drinking. These include the opiate antagonists Nalmefene or Naltrexone that can be prescribed to reduce the euphoric sensations associated with drinking, and so help to reduce intake.
Other simple strategies to help you moderate your drinking:
11. Interspersing alcoholic drinks with soft ones, or water.
12. Drinking a glass of water or soda-water alongside your alcoholic drink.
13. Choosing drinks with lower alcohol content (to keep your units down).
14. Sipping your drinks instead of gulping them.
15. Drinking more slowly by taking longer between sips.
16. Skipping rounds. See if you can make your drink last two rounds.
17. Ordering a half pint of beer instead of a pint, or a small glass of wine (125mls) instead of a medium (175mls) or a large (250mls).
18. Buying smaller bottles of wine and beer for home use.
19. Buying a bar-person’s measure for spirits and wine to more accurately measure the drinks you pour yourself at home.
Toby Burton is a psychotherapist practising in North London.