Maybe you’ve heard of “Sober October”. It’s been gaining more traction in both the US and the UK thanks to social media campaigns. In the UK, it has been a fundraising challenge to help raise money for cancer research. And in the US, Joe Rogan and his friends have championed it was a way of taking steps towards a healthier lifestyle. Over the last few years, the Joe Rogan Experience podcast has inspired millions to consider laying off the booze for 31 whole days.
Does the thought of stopping alcohol for a month leave you feeling nervous? Does it create a crazy urge to join the counter-challenge “Can’t Remember November”? Is it overwhelming because you know it’d be a monumental task?
Maybe you’ve already tried stopping for a few days. Perhaps you’ve even made it a whole week. But an entire month can be really challenging if alcohol is a regular part of your life. Let’s talk about the reasons that Sober October can seem like a daunting task even if you know it would be a good thing to do.
It might make more sense to use October to identify some smaller steps that help set you up stop drinking for a more extended period - or maybe forever.
Six Things That Make a Sober Month Difficult
1. Your Relationships Are Built On Booze
A lot of folks have friendships that focus on alcohol use – your drinking buddies or the gals who’ll always drink wine with you. Booze is actually the way you connect. These would be friends who try to talk you out of taking a sobriety challenge. Or they mock you for ordering a non-alcoholic beverage. But even alcohol-fueled connection is better than being lonely - right?
Managing your friendships while not drinking for a few days seems tolerable, but a whole month requires you to rethink your social connections. Without alcohol as a social lubricant, there might be a lot less socializing happening. Things might get kind of lonely. But, in reality, relationships built around booze don’t really satisfy that desire for authentic and safe connections.
October might be the time to take risks in developing healthier friendships. Why not branch out of your social circle and look for more meaningful connections in new or old places.
2. What You Do For Fun Always Includes Alcohol
For some people, the thought of an evening out or a social gathering without alcohol is unfathomable. It might be that you only socialize at a bar or club. Or a night with the girls or guys is automatically assumed to include a hangover the next day. It might be that any sporting event or activity comes with an expectation of drinking. When drinking is one of the primary ways you have fun, it can seem really dull to remove alcohol for an extended time.
But the use of alcohol for “fun” may actually be what has become boring – you might not have a clue what to do with yourself when you’re not drinking for entertainment. Chances are you’ve let a lot of your interests and relationships slip in favour of building your social life around alcohol. It might be time for a new hobby or get back into an old one. Perhaps there's a new skill you've always wanted to learn but haven't had the energy or motivation to go for it.
Part of the Sober October challenge in finding healthy activities to engage in like yoga, hiking, or increasing your fitness level. Explore opportunities for fun and adventure that don’t make booze a priority.
3. Alcohol Helps You Fall Asleep
While it’s true that alcohol has a sedating effect and can “knock you out”, it actually doesn’t help you get a good night’s sleep. Research shows that alcohol-induced sleep isn’t as restorative as sleep without it. Alcohol creates other challenges for a good night's rest: it interrupts your circadian rhythm, and it interferes with REM sleep. Alcohol use also increases breathing difficulties like snoring and sleep apnea, as well as causing more trips to the bathroom.
Research also shows that sleep disturbances are common for people who are heavy consumers of alcohol. But this can lead to a vicious cycle of drinking more to help cope with insomnia and the consequences of poor sleep. Without restful sleep, the impacts on emotional, physical, and mental health are enormous.
How about making changes to improve the quality of your sleep so that you don’t need a “nightcap”? Exercise, healthy bedtime routines, and putting away the devices are a start for getting a better night’s sleep.
4. It Helps You “Manage” Anxiety
Some people use alcohol to “manage” anxiety symptoms because it can be effective at providing relief from the discomfort it brings. Many people who feel anxious in social settings believe that alcohol helps them have a better time socializing. They think that drinking makes them funnier, more relaxed, and more able to interact in social settings.
Here’s one of the challenges of using alcohol to deal with anxiety – it actually leads to increased anxiety. When people drink to “take the edge off” anxiety symptoms like tension, feeling shaky, or having a racing heart, those symptoms return once the alcohol is worn off – and often the symptoms are worse. This sets someone up for increased alcohol use to manage the increase in anxiety symptoms which just creates a vicious cycle.
There are better ways to deal with anxiety – tools that work better than the perpetual loop of anxiety then numbing out with alcohol only to have anxiety hit you hard the minute alcohol leaves your system.
You might benefit from learning some better coping tools. A mindfulness practice or taking a yoga class could be a start. It also might be time to make an appointment with a therapist who can help you work through anxiety in healthier ways.
5. Alcohol Helps You Deal with Painful and Traumatic Experiences
There is a reason that so many references to alcohol use are about numbing out and feeling no pain: it works. Alcohol use is often one of the ways people self-medicate trauma memories and trauma symptoms. The more someone experiences the disruptions for painful life experiences, the more likely they will gravitate to using alcohol to help them feel better.
The use of alcohol can be a very effective way of stopping intrusive memories, managing anxiety and shame, or numbing out. Alcohol use is a way to dampen the pain. It can be impossible to imagine giving up one of the things that help you cope.
The first step is identifying ways you could develop healthier tools and supports so that you might be able to have less reliance on alcohol. Therapists who understand the connection between trauma and substance use would be able to help.
6. Your Body is Physically Dependent On Alcohol
Prolonged and heavy drinking can lead to someone becoming physically dependent on alcohol. People who stop drinking when they are alcohol-dependent will go through withdrawal symptoms that include nausea, sweating, shakiness, increased anxiety, insomnia, agitation, and rapid heart rate. It also increases the risk of dangerous withdrawal seizures.
If you are physically dependent on alcohol, it’s crucial to get the support of your doctor as well as resources in your community. These will help you withdraw from alcohol in a medically safe way.
Conversations with your physician are an essential first step in taking care of yourself in such a big way. You can give your body and brain the support it needs by reaching out for help.
Let the conversations about Sober October allow you to consider the changes you might need to make to be able to reduce your alcohol use.
Healthy and supportive friends are a start. Finding new things to occupy your time and challenge yourself will also help. See a therapist to address anxiety or trauma symptoms. Visit your doctor to get medical support if you need to. Join in the conversation, even if it’s only to be curious about that journey for yourself.