“Dry January” the month long campaign and fund-raiser, run by the charity alcohol change (www.alcoholchange.org.uk) has involved over four million UK participants, this year, all of whom sign up to give up alcohol for the whole month.
“Dry January” has fast become part of the national consciousness. Like Black Friday, or Christmas Jumper Day, something which started off as a small fundraiser and awareness campaign, now involves many of us.
The charity alcohol change, which was formed from the merger of Alcohol Concern and Alcohol research UK, champions the benefits of giving up alcohol for a month: They claim that 88% of participants save money, 71% of participants had better sleep, with 67% of them reporting having higher energy. Meanwhile, a further 58% of participants lost weight.
Dry January is .marketed as “the perfect opportunity to reset your relationship with alcohol” The charity’s website tells us: “Lots of us feel like we’re drinking a bit too much, or too often, or just like we could do with some time off”. Alcohol Change suggests that Dry January could be the first step in a longer term change. “It only takes three weeks to break a habit so this could be your route to a happier, healthier drinking long-term.”
All of this sounds very appealing. Dry January participants regularly take to social media to discuss brighter skin, weight loss or better sleep. Many of them post about events they now enjoy without alcohol. There is a collective wisdom that come 1st February, each of their relationship with alcohol will have changed.
According to the World Health Organisation’s alcohol AUDIT, 72% of people who do Dry January are still drinking less riskily six months later. With the proven links to heath conditions such as liver disease, high blood pressure, depression and at least seven types of cancer, lower drinking rates are indisputably a good thing.
But what about those who start the new year determined to stop drinking or at the very least, cut down their alcohol intake, and fail to get past the first few dark days of January? Dr Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health and addiction at the University of York, has raised concerns that those who attempt an abstinence in January, and fail, could be discouraged from seeking further help. “The problem for them is if they start Dry January and don’t complete it, it does nothing for their confidence.”
He goes on: “We know that treatment services for people who develop problems with alcohol have been savagely cut – so in some ways, campaigns (such as Dry January) are a distraction from people who really do have a problem. Dr Hamilton argues that those people who complete Dry January are those who don’t have a problem. Yet little research has been carried out on the numbers of people who fail to stick to Dry January or any other attempt at sobriety.
According to The Independent, nine out of ten people who attempt to give up or even cut down their drinking in January, fail. A whole host of different reasons are cited: January’s a miserable month with its cold weather, lack of light, credit card bills and tax demands. Many Dry January “sliders” claim it’s the worst month to give up drink.
One journalist maintains that setting ourselves up for an entire month without alcohol is setting ourselves up for failure. “The problem with these artificial challenges like quitting smoking for Stoptober or Meat-free Mondays, is that unless you set out with Olympian determination, you are setting yourself up to fail. And then you feel worse, and the idea that you can’t stop is re-inforced”.
Some of this may be true. But what about the UK’s estimated 10.8 million problem drinkers (Source: Alcohol Concern Survey 2018), who regularly consume enough alcohol to pose a serious threat to their health? Specialist Addiction Psychotherapist, Rebecca Sparkes, says that few of these men and women will be helped by a campaign such as Dry January.
“Most heavy or problem drinkers struggle to change their behaviour around alcohol without specialist support,” she says. “Heavy drinkers in particular need to be aware of the physical risks of stopping drinking suddenly. Many of those who try to stop completely will experience sweating, palpitations, headaches and nausea. A medium to heavy drinker should have medical support from their GP and use medication in a cutting-down period.”
Rebecca recommends anyone who has struggled to stop their drinking or cut down their intake should contact their GP or seek help from one of the alcohol awareness charities. “It’s really tough stopping or cutting down, especially if alcohol is a big part of anyone’s working life or social life. Doctors and alcohol charities can put anyone struggling in touch with a number of support services which can be really valuable in the first few days and weeks.”
Many heavy or problem drinkers admit that there are underlying stresses or problems in their lives and that alcohol is a way of numbing those difficulties. Work stress, financial problems, relationship difficulties and loneliness are all common reasons cited for heavy drinking.
An experienced alcohol and addictions counsellor or psychotherapist will be able to help anyone whose drinking is under-pinned by life problems, help tackle whatever issues are causing difficulty, as well as support the process of abstinence.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (“CBT”) can be a very useful way of working with problem drinkers. CBT helps people better understand their triggers for drinking and how they can introduce different behaviours or strategies.
Anyone who is struggling with depression, anxiety or low self-esteem might benefit from a more in-depth approach from an addictions psychotherapist. If alcohol has been a way of coping with low mood or feelings of emptiness, there will be an added layer of shame and hopelessness.
~”Most people who are drinking as a way of coping or managing also know that alcohol is making their problems worse,” says Rebecca Sparkes. “But they believe they can’t face a life without alcohol. An experienced therapist can help people better understand their difficulties and tackle problems more effectively, without alcohol or other substances.”
If you or a friend/family member are experiencing difficulties with alcohol, please contact Help4addiction 0203 955 7700