Worried about your drinking? Here's how to check it
By Sandee LaMotte, CNN
(CNN) -- There are lots of great reasons to decide to go "dry" in January and give up alcohol. Perhaps you imbibed a bit too much over the holidays, or want to start a diet or exercise routine and can't afford the calories or the zap in energy and motivation that drinking can bring.
"Or it may be someone who truly is starting to wonder or question their relationship with alcohol, and this is an opportunity to really explore that," said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, medical director of the Substance Use Disorders Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"For some people saying 'I'm not going to drink this entire month,' might be really hard, so trying to do so may show you how easy or difficult it is for you," said neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, who conducts classes at Columbia University's Teachers College.
What are expert advice on how to have a successful "dry January"? Read on.
1. Know your reasons
It helps to be clear about your goal to make it a habit, said Wakeman, who is an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
"The research we have on goal setting says goals are more likely to be achieved if they're really relevant to you as an individual and not abstract like 'I should stop drinking because drinking is bad,' " she said.
Concrete goals such as embracing new sleep habits or an exercise routine will help make giving up drinking easier, she said.
"I really want to stop drinking because I know when I drink heavily I don't get up the next morning and I don't work out is a very specific goal," Wakeman said.
Additional motivation can come from the health gains you can make from reducing or eliminating alcohol, experts say.
"Drinking less over time can have really measurable benefits in your health in terms of your blood pressure, your risk of cancer, your risk of liver disease and other conditions, Wakeman said.
"Over the course of a month, you may notice some short term benefits like better sleep, a better complexion due to improvements in your skin, feeling more clear headed and having more energy," she added.
2. Set 'SMART' goals
Many of us may be familiar with SMART goals from work or school settings, which are used to help people set attainable goals. It stands for:
- Specific: Set an achievable goal, such as cutting back on drinking 3 days a week. You can add days until you reach your final goal.
- Measurable: How many drinks will you cut -- and what are the drink sizes? A beer is 12 ounces, a glass of wine is a 5 ounces and a serving of spirits is 1.5 ounces.
- Achievable: Make sure there are not a bunch of social engagements where alcohol is likely to be served during your month of abstention.
- Relevant: How is not drinking going to help me with my life and health?
- Time based: Set a reasonable time frame to finish your efforts. If you like, you can set another goal later.
"If you set a bar too high, you may fail, so it's better to set smaller goals to achieve it," Hafeez said. "Nothing starts without an honest conversation with yourself."
3. Share your goal with others
Informing a few friends or family members of your goal can help you reach it, experts say. For some people it may work to announce their plan on social media -- and even invite others to join in and report back on their progress..
"That's where I think 'dry January' has kind of caught on," Wakeman said. "If you publicly state you're going to do something, you're more likely to stick with it than if you keep it to yourself."
4. Consider a 'mocktail'
Drinking is often associated with social gatherings or fun, festive times. That can train your brain to see alcohol as a positive. You can combat those urges by replacing your drink of choice with something equally festive or flavorful, experts say.
"For some people it can be just sparkling water, and for other people it's actually having a 'mocktail' or some sort of (non-alcoholic) drink that feels fun and celebratory," Wakeman said.
"Substituting one behavior for another can work because you're tricking your brain," Hafeez said. "That can absolutely help you avoid temptation."
There is an entire industry devoted to making non-alcoholic drinks that taste (at least a bit) like the real thing. Some even claim to have added ingredients that are "calming" or "healthy."
"I'm skeptical of anything that claims to relax you or have amazing health benefits that comes in a glass regardless of what it is," Wakeman said. "But if it's an alternative that allows you to feel like you're not missing out on a social situation, and helps you make the changes that you want to your alcohol consumption, I don't think there's any downside to that."
5. Track your progress, goal and feelings
Even if you don't end up cutting out all alcohol, tracking your emotions and urges to discover your triggers can be very helpful information, Wakeman said.
"Even just measuring your behavior, whether it's alcohol or exercise or your diet can be an intervention inand of itself," she said.
"Even if someone's not yet ready to make changes, just keeping a diary of when you're drinking, what situations you're drinking more and how you're feeling at those times, can really help you identify sort of trigger situations where you may be more likely to drink," Wakeman added.
Monitor your symptoms
There's an additional piece that's important in successfully accomplishing a "dry January," experts say. It's important to notice if you -- or a loved one -- are showing any negative symptoms from cutting back or eliminating alcohol. It could be a sign that you need professional help to reach your goal.
"The first thing to be mindful of is whether or not you actually have an alcohol use disorder," Wakeman said. "If someone's been drinking very heavily every single day and is at risk for withdrawal symptoms, then it can actually be dangerous to stop abruptly."
A person with a true alcohol use disorder, who has gotten used to having a certain level of alcohol in their body every single day, can go into withdrawal and experience severe physical symptoms like shakiness, sweating, rapid heart rate and seizures.
"That would be a real indication that you need to talk to a medical professional about getting medical treatment for withdrawal and not stopping on your own," Wakeman said.
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