Sober Curious? A Psychologist’s Guide to Cutting Down on Alcohol

Young adults are giving up alcohol in record numbers as part of a drive towards overall wellness. Interested in joining them? Here’s everything you need to know.

sober curious

When it comes to drinking, times are changing. According to a Drink Aware survey from 2019, the number of British adults drinking alcohol at least once a week had fallen by 52 percent in the four years since 2015. The divide is generational: adults aged 55 to 74 were the most likely to drink each week (58 percent), while those aged 16 to 24 were the least likely (30 percent). It’s not just a UK trend; a 2020 study found that the portion of college-age Americans who are teetotal rose from 20 percent to 28 percent between 2002 and 2018.

“Driven primarily through social media, Generation Z adopters of sober curious are part of a generation that takes health, wellbeing and mental health seriously,” says Mark Vahrmeyer, founder of Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy.

“Health, for this current coming of age generation, firmly encompasses ‘mental health’ – which in this instance predominantly refers to emotional well-being managed though expressing and observing clear boundaries. And if there is one thing that alcohol contributes to, it is a blurring of boundaries,” he adds.

An Australian study with 50 “light drinkers and abstainers” found that “no one associates alcohol with being in good health”. Meanwhile, a 2018 study that looked at drinking habits among Swedish youth found that spending more time with family not only gave young people less time to drink with their friends but “as a social practice, orientates adolescents’ habitual and creative responses to everyday life concerns away from drinking.”

The same study notes that “heavy drinking may have lost its status as a compulsory masculine ritual in the transition to adulthood” which can only be a good thing compared to the early 2000s heavy-drinking ‘lad culture’ that many millennials and Gen X experienced.

Unlike millennials, Vahrmeyer says that the idea that a heavy night of drinking can be offset through a run or workout the following morning, “simply does not fly with Gen Z.” Driven by social media, Vahrmeyer says this desire to be well in body and mind has not only led to a rise in teetotallers, but a rise in those interested in cutting down on their consumption.

“The growing ‘sober curious’ movement echoes how public perception has changed surrounding other substances like tobacco,” adds Emma Friedberg, a clinician at Mountainside Treatment Center where she helps people struggling with addiction. “It seems that there is less normalisation of the unpleasant physical effects of drinking, such as poor sleep, nausea, headaches, decreased capacity for productivity, etc.” she adds.

If you want to explore the sober curious movement but aren’t sure where to begin, you may find these tips a useful starting point.

5 tips to cut down the alcohol (according to a psychologist)

Ask yourself why you drink

“The way we go about cutting down depends on our motivation for drinking in the first place, so the first step may be figuring out why drinking is appealing,” says Friedberg. “It may be a ritualistic ‘treat’ at the end of a long day, a social lubricant, or just the norm when it comes to celebrating and unwinding.”

It can be difficult to interrogate ourselves, so as well as questioning yourself and speaking to friends, Vahrmeyer recommends journaling as “a useful exercise in sifting through all the feelings and making sense of what is right for you.”

He stresses that “It’s important to remember that you are not engaging with sober curiosity because you are ‘an alcoholic’ and physically dependent on alcohol to function. However, we do all have our own personal relationship with alcohol in terms of why we drink, how we respond to alcohol and crucially, our relationship with ourselves and others when using alcohol.”

Try a thought experiment

As you start to think about why you like to drink, Vahrmeyer suggests going a bit deeper with a thought experiment: “If you have a night out coming up, and alongside this are curious about examining your relationship to alcohol, then spend some time imagining what it would be like to not drink,” he suggests.

“Play with the thought - what emotions come up? For example, does this make you feel anxious - if so, what is the anxiety about? Are you anxious that you will feel ‘left out’ or is it that you worry that you won’t have very much to say? What happens if you introduce the idea of having one alcoholic drink for example - does that change things?” he asks. “Perhaps this feels reassuring, or perhaps it evokes a negative response telling you that you would actually rather not drink.”

Find something fulfilling

For many of us, a quick pint with friends is just ‘something to do’. A habit, and an excuse to get together with mates. But, from skydiving to walking the dog together, there are other social past-times you can do.

“It can be useful to incorporate new hobbies or rituals into your daily routines,” agrees Friedberg. Instead of going for a glass of wine after work, why not invite the office bouldering, for example?

If you treat drinking as a way to unwind, Friedberg suggests adding new self-care activities into your daily routines to maintain a sense of ‘reward; in place of drinking. “Exploring sobriety should ideally include curiosity and discovery of what you like to do and how you enjoy spending your time,” she says. “Finding alternative ways of unwinding, relaxing, and having fun can both lower dependence on alcohol and increase overall life satisfaction.”

Try alcohol-free

Forget lime and soda; we’re living in a golden age of low alcohol and alcohol-free drinks, with most drinks brands and most bars offering alternatives that taste like the higher percentage originals.

“These drinks look and taste like a regular alcoholic drink, but without the negative consequences associated with alcohol,” says Friedberg. “Increased prevalence of such beverages means that you no longer need to imbibe to feel included in festivities.”

Find other ways to deal with anxiety

The link between alcohol consumption and anxiety is well documented. In one study, 23 participants with social anxiety and 23 participants who didn’t report feeling socially anxious were asked about their use of alcohol as a coping mechanism in different social situations. The socially anxious group was “significantly more likely” than controls to report using alcohol to feel more comfortable, and to avoid social situations if alcohol was unavailable.

It doesn’t have to be this way. “If you are sober curious but find it difficult to not drink due to anxiety, a professional can really be of support,” says Vahrmeyer, who explains that while psychotherapy can be useful as a treatment for addiction, it “can be equally useful in helping you to identify and work through the reasons why you find it difficult to not drink, as well us to make sense of why perhaps moderating your drinking can be difficult.

"Neither of these positions mean that you are an alcoholic, but they may mean that you have become habituated to using alcohol to mediate difficult feelings.”

Final thoughts

If this article has got you reflecting on your own alcohol use, it’s important not to worry. Both of our experts stress that simply being sober curious does not mean you have an alcohol problem – and even if you think you do, there’s a lot of help out there.

“The process of being sober curious is not results orientated, unlike addiction programmes,” says Vahrmeyer. “It’s about curiosity into how you feel, who you are and why you do what you do. Invariably you will need to experiment with your relationship with alcohol to find whether – and in what quantities – using alcohol is an expression of who you choose to be.”

“It can be helpful to put limits on drinking, such as only drinking on weekends or only when out with friends,” adds Friedberg. “These limits can allow us to be purposeful about when we choose to drink, and increase our sense of personal autonomy. When you have days off drinking, notice the physical or emotional benefits and let that motivate you to continue decreasing your use if that’s your goal.”

Please log in to your store account

To share with your friends, log in is required so that we can verify your identity and reward you for successful referrals.

Log in to your account If you don't have a store account, you can create on here

Check out why Hueligans love us on @huel

Use #huel in your Huel photos for the chance to feature on our Instagram

Join our VIP list

Never miss out on new products, exclusive offers, and more when you join the Huel mailing list.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. You can unsubscribe at any time. Huel Privacy Policy