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How Dry January Has Changed the Conversation Around Alcohol

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More and more people are kicking off their new year with a challenge known as Dry January. The campaign that started in 2014 by Alcohol Change UK asks individuals to consciously abstain from alcohol for the entire month of January.

Grayson Lewis, the peer recovery support coordinator at Northern Michigan Substance Abuse Services, which serves 21 counties, is a supporter of Dry January. Lewis is in long-term recovery and hasn’t used drugs or alcohol since August 2014.

“I love recovery because it’s given me hope and a purpose in life, and I never had that before,” Lewis said.

Lewis is a qualified peer recovery coach through the state of Michigan, and a certified peer mentor through the Michigan Certification Board of Addiction Professionals.

“It’s not up to anyone else to define what recovery looks like for you,” Lewis said.

Refraining from alcohol requires a level of introspection to understand why you turn to it in the first place.

Drinking defined: What does moderation, binging and gray area drinking really mean?

With terms floating around like sober curious, hangxiety, California sober, mommy wine culture or gray area drinking, discovering where individuals fall on the spectrum of sobriety can be confusing.

. Where they fall on the consumption continuum comes down to how much they drink and how often they do it.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, drinking in moderation is two drinks or fewer per day for men, one drink or fewer per day for women.

Binge drinking is defined by the as a pattern of alcohol consumption that brings the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level to 0.08% or more. This pattern of drinking usually corresponds to five or more drinks on a single occasion for men, or four or more drinks on a single occasion for women, generally within about two hours.

 refers to a level of alcohol consumption that falls between moderate and risky drinking. Gray area drinking can describe people who misuse alcohol or struggle to control their alcohol consumption but do not fulfill criteria for an alcohol use disorder, or alcohol addiction.

About would not be expected to meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for having a severe alcohol use disorder.

Dry January is a form of harm reduction when it comes to alcohol consumption.

“The basic premise of harm reduction is that any step forward is a positive step,” Lewis said.

“If you are maintaining the same amount of drinks that you were drinking before, but you’ve stopped driving, or you’re able to cut back or make an adjustment to improve your life, that’s fabulous and we support that. Which is a pretty different paradigm from the traditional model of its abstinence or nothing,” she added.

Sober curious

Ruby Warrington coined the term sober curious and defines it as “to choose to question, or get curious about, every impulse, invitation, and expectation to drink, versus mindlessly going along with the dominant drinking culture.”

Warrington is the author of the book “Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.”

There is similar premise behind the Dry January challenge. “We are not anti-alcohol; we are for alcohol change. We are for a future in which people drink as a conscious choice, not a default,” Alcohol Change UK’s website reads.

Lewis credits this to a societal shift toward being more healthy overall, and more critical of the impact consumption has on individual mental and physical wellbeing.

“I think there is a growing trend for becoming healthier in society as a whole and especially in the younger generation,” Lewis said. “Examining what goes into the foods we eat, the relationship toward the chemicals we put in our bodies. I think it becomes natural to extend that critical thinking into drinking.

“Are the payoffs worth the price?”

The word sober has long meant complete abstinence, but that definition is changing. The sober curious movement makes room for individuals who are using harm reduction in their lives to define recovery in new ways.

“I really think the word sober needs to be expanded on the societal level, and not be exclusive of people whose recovery looks different from my recovery,” Lewis said.

Mommy wine culture

, – beverages like this are marketed toward busy moms as a coping mechanism for a long day of parenting.

Historically, men have been more likely to drink alcohol than women and to drink in quantities that damage their health. This statistic has significantly changed in the last 50 years – the rates of alcohol use in women has converged with men in recent decades.

In the mid-1990s, the alcohol industry started a new category, nicknamed “alcopops.” These sweet and sugary concoctions were targeted at women, a previously untapped population to advertise alcohol to.

“Any time that a new group is encouraged to drink, we see more and more cases of substance use disorder crop up. That happens when we use these substances that are really socially acceptable in the same amount that other people do,” Lewis said.

“But in some people there is a switch that flips in their brain chemistry and things start to change for them. The more socially encouraged that is as a coping mechanism, the more people are likely to try it,” Lewis added.

It’s understandable why moms do turn to wine, Lewis explains. It’s cheap, you can walk around your house with it, and it’s unlike other decompression activities that may require time away from the house or concentration.

“It can be a great tool in conjunction with other coping skills. You get in trouble when it starts to be your coping skill for bad Mondays or tantrums and things add up,” Lewis said.

Although it may be a common anecdote to stress, there are other ways to manage.

“Do you really deserve having a substance that is going to have negative effects on your health? Or do you deserve something that will help you feel rested and renewed and feel better, with less long terms consequences. It’s being sold as this cure all with no emphasis on the dangers or the long-term effects, or the short-term effects like hangxiety,” Lewis said.

Hangxiety and other impacts on mental health

Hangxiety is another new term to describe the plunge in emotion or panic you may feel the day after drinking. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. in the U.S., or 19.1%, have an anxiety disorder.

including GABA, serotonin and dopamine, and when these brain chemicals are altered, it can throw off how the body reacts in everyday situations. Alcohol can cause panic because of its impact GABA, a chemical that typically has relaxing effects. Small amounts of alcohol can stimulate GABA and cause feelings of relaxation, but heavy drinking can deplete GABA, causing elevated tension and feelings of panic.

“There’s a serious gap in the education of the more immediate effects that can happen with casual drinking. If you have pre-existing anxiety, alcohol is a depressant. As soon as you take away that depressant, your anxiety is going to spike up,” Lewis said.

Alcohol impacts your health in other ways, too. Chronic diseases such as liver cirrhosis; pancreatitis; and various cancers, including liver, mouth, throat, larynx and esophagus, are all associated with excessive drinking. Unintentional injuries, such as motor-vehicle traffic crashes, falls, drowning, burns and firearm injuries have also been linked to alcohol consumption.

Benefits of sobriety

“I think I am more fun, I don’t have all the toxic negative emotions burning inside me that I would struggle with,” Lewis said about abstaining from alcohol.

“The depression and anxiety, feeling like I didn’t have a place in the greater world; that is a lot to carry inside your head. That does not make me fun. Now, I have an income where I can afford to go out and do more things. I don’t have to worry about if I can drink there, if I’ll be hungover, I have a lot more quality friendships with people,” Lewis added.

Any time a major change is made in life, it can be a struggle. Lewis reminds anyone who is sober curious or becoming more mindful about their alcohol intake that there is a lot to look forward to.

“That first little bit of time can be really uncomfortable and really difficult, but it does get better. If it stayed like that, nobody would do it,” Lewis said.

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