In this article I describe a step-by-step method to stop drinking alcohol based on the most up to date scientific research available.
If you want to stop drinking but haven’t been able to, it’s probably because you’ve got stuck on one of these 4 hurdles:
- Lifestyle change: if you don’t change your lifestyle, you will slip back into old drinking routines
- Habit: if you have a drinking habit and don’t identify what triggers it, you will end up drinking again
- Physical withdrawals: if you have become physically dependent on alcohol you’ll need to overcome the physical withdrawals [this applies only to regular heavy drinkers]
- Psychological cravings: if you suffer from psychological cravings and don’t learn how to overcome them you’ll be drinking again before you have a chance to catch yourself
Some people are able to simply make a decision and stop drinking just by making a lifestyle change. For others it’s not so simple – they may have tried quitting this way countless times but have not succeeded as they never learned how to break the habit or overcome their psychological cravings.
Here are the steps I’ll take you through to show you exactly how to overcome each of these 4 hurdles:
- How to make a lifestyle change to stop drinking alcohol
- How to break your drinking habit
- How to overcome physical withdrawals from alcohol
- How to overcome psychological cravings for alcohol
Throughout this article I also include some practical aids and tips (what medication can help, what support is available etc.).
Section 1: How to make a lifestyle change to stop drinking alcohol
1. Set your goal (including stop date) and make the decision
Your goal is simple: to stop drinking. But, how high a priority is this goal for you? For many people, they only manage to successfully stop drinking once they have made this goal their #1 priority.
- What are the top priorities in your life right now? List these out
- Can you afford to make stopping drinking your highest priority?
- Can you afford not to?
Your next consideration is, when exactly will you stop? And for how long – one month, one year or forever?
Make the decision to stick to this goal.
2. Become accountable
Some people like to share their goals publicly to their family and friends for motivation: they do not want to be seen to give up on their goals in public.
Others prefer more private forms of accountability, such as a close friend or coach who they regularly update on their progress and can call if they are feeling tempted to break their goal.
Either way, it’s important to have some form of accountability.
Questions you need to answer include:
- Who will pick to hold you accountable to your goal?
- Is this person reliable?
- Does this person have a problem with drinking?
- Does this person want to see you succeed?
3. Create a plan for your time
You need to anticipate situations when you would normally drink, and plan for how you’re going to deal with them.
- Look at your day: maybe every evening after work you have a drink
- Look at your week: maybe every weekend most of your social activities included drink
- Look at your month: maybe you have a big social occasion coming up that would usually involve a lot of drinking
There are 2 types of situations you need to plan for:
a) Ongoing, everyday situations
The simple rule of thumb is to plan to avoid the people, places and things you used to frequent when drinking.
Of course it is possible to spend time with these people and in these places and not drink, it’s just that this might be difficult for you at the start of your non-drinking experience.
In addition to that, it is likely you spent a lot of your time doing drinking related activities when you were drinking: now it is time to invest in creating a more balanced life.
In the next step we look at how to come up with ideas for new, non-drinking related activities to fill your time.
b) One-off, tricky situations
The second type of situation you need to plan for are one-off situations, like a friend’s wedding, a birthday or a work party. What can make these situations tricky is that from a purely “not-drinking” perspective you would choose not to attend, but from a social perspective you may not want to miss out on a special occasion or may even feel obliged to attend.
i) Make a decision to attend or not
The key question you need to ask yourself is: can I safely go to this event and not drink?
If the answer is no then you need to go back to your priority list: “is making a good impression at work by going to my Christmas dinner more important to me than not drinking?”
If not drinking is your number one priority then it should be absolutely clear that if you cannot safely attend an event without drinking, then under no circumstances is this event worth attending.
If you’re unsure whether you should attend, talk to your support group for a fresh perspective.
ii) If you decide not to go, decide how you will communicate this
It’s simple, you can either tell the truth: you’ve recently stopped drinking alcohol and you don’t feel ready for such an event yet.
Or, you can come up with an excuse: you are ill, something last minute came up with work etc.
iii) If you decide to go, make necessary preparations
If you believe that you can safely go without drinking – but it might be a bit uncomfortable – then you need to decide what level of discomfort you are ready to tolerate.
Some discomfort is good: you can use this as an opportunity to grow stronger not drinking. But of course too much discomfort is not good, and it may be that you have to make a sacrifice and leave early.
Here are some tips for attending an alcohol intensive social occasion that you might be worried about:
- Have an escape route: so you know exactly how you can leave at any second if you need to (e.g. drive to the event on your own so you know you can just walk out the door and drive away if you feel too uncomfortable). The peace of mind of knowing this escape route is there is often enough to ensure you never need to actually use it!
- Be prepared to slip out unnoticed: if you do decide to leave, don’t worry that it will be rude to slip out unnoticed. Most people are busy having fun and won’t notice. If they do notice, the ones who matter will understand you’re only learning how to live not drinking, and the ones who don’t understand that aren’t worth your time worrying about. If you feel rude not saying goodbye, sometimes it may be easiest to do it discreetly to not cause a scene, or to leave first and send a message apologising you didn’t get to see them to say goodbye
- Remember why you are going to this event in the first place. If you focus on the fact that you are here to celebrate a friend’s birthday etc. and to contribute to your friend’s night this can take your attention away from worrying only about your own enjoyment – and how much more fun you would be having if you were drinking…
- Remember you have just begun your journey: your first few events you are likely to feel awkward without alcohol, but it will get better as you relearn how to socialize and have fun alcohol free
4. Identify new activities to replace drinking, achieve more balance and regain motivation
OK, you’ve stopped drinking, but what now? If drinking was your main “fun” activity, you’re going to have to spend some time identifying new “fun” activities – otherwise you’ll just end up drinking again, because everyone needs to have some fun!
It is perfectly possible to stop drinking and to continue living the same fun life you had while drinking. If you enjoy it, you can still go to bars and clubs. However, the simple truth is that bars and clubs are less interesting without alcohol – yes you’ll still want to go to them, but probably not as often! Now you’ll go there as part of a more balanced lifestyle.
However, in the early days of not drinking most people choose to avoid these places, for 2 reasons:
- You are more likely to drink there, so often people choose to get more experience not drinking first
- You spent a disproportionate amount of time there when drinking: now is the time to invest in other areas of life
In addition to helping you not drink, regaining this sense of balance in your life is another reason why identifying replacement activities is so important.
On the subject of balance, try to focus on identifying fun things that you enjoy doing. You don’t need to spend all of your time working on becoming “a better you”: you are already undergoing a LOT of change by stopping drinking, now is not the time to try to change too much in every area of your life (trying to totally overhaul your diet and begin a new intensive exercise regime will probably be overkill by putting yourself under pressure to succeed on all fronts).
At first it can be difficult to think of fun ideas that don’t involve drinking, especially fun ideas you want to do. Even more difficult is actually getting up to go and do them. This isn’t because you’re lazy, it’s because your motivation has been sapped by drinking.
How alcohol has sapped your motivation:
Your body has a natural reward system to ensure you take care of it: if you do something good for the body (like exercise) you will feel good as a reward. The catch here is that for every reward, you must do some work up front.
However, alcohol and drugs hijack this reward system: they offer a way to get the reward (feel good) without doing any work! (besides picking up a drink…)
Why would you bother going on a Sunday afternoon hike with your friends when you could get the same reward by sitting on your couch drinking a couple beers? Over time this questions becomes some variant of: why would you want to do anything when you could just get drunk?
Intuitively we know the answer to this question: skipping the hike to drink beer might be good the first couple of times, but eventually it stops feeling good. The beer doesn’t have the same effect it used to have. You end up drinking more beer, yet somehow never feeling quite as good as the first couple of times. Meanwhile your friends are still hiking away every week.
Rewiring this motivation will take a bit of time: initially you might not feel very motivated to go on the hike! But, action precedes motivation. You can’t sit around waiting to feel motivated, you have to act first, and then you will begin to feel motivated.
i) Set rewards
Keeping track of your results and setting milestones and rewards can help you maintain your motivation.
I kept track of every day I didn’t drink on a calendar in my bedroom: I put an X through every day I completed alcohol free. Once you’ve got a couple of weeks of uninterrupted X’s then not breaking the chain becomes a very real motivator!
I also celebrated mini successes along the way, after one week, one month, two months etc. Sometimes I do this in private, by sitting and reflecting on the past months or years. Other times I do this more publicly, by going for dinner with friends to celebrate another year drink free. I don’t need to do this in order not to drink, but it’s a nice occasion to pause and reflect on all the good things that have happened in my life since I’ve stopped.
Some people put aside the money they would have spent on alcohol and use it to buy rewards for themselves – clothes, holidays, cars etc.
ii) Set support network
One of the most important things you can do is to create a support network of people who you can talk to about your struggles to stop drinking. These can be friends, professionals such as psychologists, community support groups (see below) etc. It can be good to have a mix of all these in your support network.
I kept in regular contact with a couple of old friends, a friend I made at a community support group (which I also attended from time to time) and at certain times a psychologist (even knowing that a psychologist who I trusted was there if I needed her was a big help).
I kept them updated on my progress and knew I could always count on them if the going got tough – they all talked me out of a drink on numerous occasions: I have no doubt that I would have drank were it not for their help.
5. Enlist the help of all available medical aids and supports
Antabuse: is a drug that produces a sensitivity to ethanol (contained in alcohol). This means that if you take an Antabuse pill and drink alcohol you will experience a severe negative reaction (described as the effects of a severe hangover immediately upon consumption of your first drink!).
[Read this article to learn more about Antabuse and 3 ways to use Antabuse to stop drinking]
Other pills: google these pills and ask your doctor if they might be suitable for your situation: naltrexone and acomprosate.
Mindfullness meditation – is proven to assist in the rewiring of neural pathways in the brain
Other: there is a wide range of supports available, many of which I deal with in the next section of this article: alcohol education courses; counselors, books, online courses, community support groups, rehab etc.
6. Begin work on addressing the remaining 3 hurdles
The next steps you need to deal with are:
- Breaking the habit
- Overcoming physical withdrawals
- Overcoming psychological cravings
Final word of warning: don’t give up
If you fail and drink again, do not despair. It is likely you drank as you haven’t yet addressed one of the remaining three hurdles.
Section 2: Breaking the habit: identifying and removing triggers that cause you to drink (even though you’re trying not to)
Even with lifestyle changes in place, sometimes you will be caught off guard by your old drinking habits. To overcome these habits requires special focus on identifying your personal situational cues.
What is a habit?
A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously [Wikipedia].
For instance, every time you finish work you might be in the habit of going to the pub, and every time you go to the pub you might be in the habit of having a drink.
It is difficult to stop doing a habitual behaviour as we often do it automatically, so we’re not even aware that we’re doing it. This means that when we’re trying to change a habit we need to be extra vigilant and pay attention.
What is a situational cue?
Habits have different cues – in this case being in the pub is the cue for us to order a drink. That’s why when you are trying to break a habit many people suggest avoiding the people, places and things you used to do – for instance maybe you always drink at a certain time, or in a certain place, or with certain people. These situational cues trigger the habit.
How to break a habit
By careful planning and anticipation you can break even the most long term habits.
1. Figure out what your situational cues are and list them
Your most obvious cues (e.g. being in the pub) will be easy, but identifying more subtle cues can be hard (indeed sometimes we can only identify them after they have caused us to slip!)
2. Make a decision about what situations you will avoid during the period of breaking your habit to limit exposure to certain cues
For example deciding to avoid the pub for the first 3 months of not drinking
3. You will not be able to avoid all situations where you experience cues. Therefore you must decide in advance how you will behave in these situations
This is the most difficult part of breaking a habit, as you will need to remain vigilant to avoid your habit kicking in without notice.
Section 3: Physical withdrawal symptoms
For moderate drinkers, the effects of physical withdrawal from alcohol are simply a bad hangover!
However, for heavy drinkers who withdraw from alcohol these effects can range from minor symptoms such as insomnia, sweating and shaking to severe symptoms like seizures and delirium tremens.
These effects can last for anywhere between a couple of weeks and a year.
As a brain sedative, alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to withdraw from. Anyone who is withdrawing from heavy alcohol use should seek a doctors advice (indeed many people attend detox units so they can receive constant monitoring as they withdraw from alcohol).
However, once the withdrawal period is complete then all physical dependence on alcohol is removed.
For most people, if they have a strong enough reason (health, family etc.) then, although difficult, they can make a lifestyle change, break their habit and withstand physical withdrawal.
However, for some people overcoming these hurdles is not enough. There is one final barrier to overcome: the psychological cravings.
Read more about the 7 symptoms of alcohol withdrawal (that affect even moderate drinkers) here.
Section 4: Overcoming psychological cravings for alcohol
In this section I describe a science based method for overcoming psychological cravings for alcohol. I also give a brief overview of alternative methods (e.g. the spiritual method of Alcoholics Anonymous).
The science based method
Overcoming psychological cravings is the most difficult part of stopping drinking for those who suffer from them. A craving is a strong psychological urge to drink alcohol.
Many of us will relate to this experience: we earnestly decide not to drink, then somehow a couple of hours later there we are, half way through the drink in our hand.
This is not because we are weak or stupid: it’s simply because we have psychological cravings that we haven’t learned how to deal with.
Why do we get these cravings?
We get these cravings as alcohol use has become our default way to deal with certain overwhelming emotions.
At some times we all experience overwhelming emotions (for instance, when we encounter a situation involving a very personal emotional vulnerability like feeling left out, not good enough or unappreciated) and we all develop certain ways to deal with them. Some people learn how to relieve these overwhelming feelings using alcohol. If they feel emotionally overwhelmed or trapped, they use alcohol as a way to take back control over their feelings.
At times, these overwhelming emotions are so intense that we lose sight of everything else except relieving them.
Harvard psychologist Lance Dodes compares this state to that of being in a blind rage: when you are furiously angry, you do not care about any consequences: you simply must express your rage. It’s too late for rational thought and logic. Similarly with alcohol cravings: once the underlying emotions have intensified beyond a certain point, relieving this overwhelmed feeling becomes the sole priority and all longer term consequences are ignored. This is why we drink even when we had planned not to: as in a rage, we are blind to the consequences.
The key to avoiding these intense alcohol cravings is to catch these feelings early on and prevent them from intensifying to such an overwhelming level.
Here is how to do just that:
How to overcome psychological cravings for alcohol:
1. Understand that this is an internal, psychological issue and focus on that
Your craving to drink is driven by your emotions. Therefore you need to focus on what is going on inside you at an emotional level – drinking alcohol is merely a symptom. There is no benefit to focusing on your drinking or its consequences, as you will be blind to these in the middle of a craving (you already know you don’t want to drink, but has that ever stopped you before?)
2. Pay attention to the first moment you think about drinking alcohol
At this moment the craving is at its weakest and can most easily be resisted. This moment might be a long time – sometimes hours! – before you would actually drink. This can make it difficult to identify. When you catch yourself first thinking of a drink, note how you feel at this time: most likely emotionally overwhelmed or trapped, and the thought of drinking feels like finding an escape from the trap.
3. At that very moment, take an action (not a drink!) to alleviate your feeling of being trapped
There is always a more direct action (that may be are anxious/guilty (e.g. friends) about taking) that addresses predicament more directly than drinking.
The thought of a drink might make you feel better, but it doesn’t change the situation. However, there likely is an action you can do that will change the situation. This will be hard for you to identify, because you will feel like there is no action.
This action can be difficult to see and scary to do – this is why we learned to use alcohol instead.
But identifying and taking this action is vital to restore your sense of power and alleviate your feeling of being trapped, therefore removing your emotional need for alcohol
An obvious example would be: you may feel like you cannot say no to your boss or a friend’s request, even though you really want to. The direct action in this situation would simply be to say no! However, your usual response is likely to be to avoid conflict then drink later in the day to comfort yourself.
Long term success
Once you begin to understand your psychological cravings then it is useful to try to anticipate these situations and ways you might act.
You may be able to identify these moments and how to deal with them on your own, or you might benefit from the help of a trained psychologist.
Alternative methods to overcome psychological cravings
- The spiritual method: Alcoholics Anonymous
Although there is mixed evidence on its effectiveness, the spiritual program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is still the most popular method of stopping drinking. AA is a spiritual program that claims to remove your psychological cravings by helping you to have a spiritual awakening.
AA works in 2 ways:
- As a support group [see below]
- Via the 12 step program to help you have a spiritual awakening
To stop drinking using AA:
1. Go to an AA meeting near you
(just google “aa meeting” and the name of the city you are in)
2. Share how you feel at the meetings
Just by going to AA meetings you may experience a sense of camaraderie. This is increased by openly and honestly sharing how you feel with a room full of strangers.
3. Get help to deal with cravings – in the short term
When AA members feel a craving coming on, they call another member (this is equivalent to the “direct action” of the scientific method
However, this isn’t going to help you eliminate the cause of the psychological cravings
4. Eliminate the cause of your cravings: find an experienced member to show you how to do the 12 steps
Although it uses a vastly different methodology, working through the 12 steps is the equivalent of working through the underlying causes of your psycho cravings.
- Community support groups
There are many support groups where groups of people who all want to stop or reduce drinking gather together to share their experience dealing with their common problem.
These support groups can help by offering a sense of belonging and that you are not the only person struggling with this issue and you do not have to do it all alone.
Each group is different: some require members to aim to stop drinking completely, others just aim to help moderate drinking levels. Most groups have some form of program that members are encouraged to work to learn how to stop drinking – for instance AA has the 12 steps program. Most of these programs offer come variant of the science based method described above.
A benefit of these groups is that they are free to attend (vs. a counsellor). However, some people would argue that the quality of the advice you receive from someone who has merely overcome the problem of stopping drinking is not the same as you would receive from a qualified and trained counsellor. They’d ask: if you had cancer would you prefer a trained surgeon to operate on you or would you prefer someone who had successfully undergone the same surgery? Of course, neither approach is mutually exclusive: attendance at a support group while also attending a counsellor has proven to be the preferred approach of many.
[Alternatives to AA]
Rehabs offer a mix of the above methods all in a secure location away from alcohol. They can be expensive – check with your insurance provider what level of cover you have.
This article has given an overview of how to stop drinking by overcoming the 4 hurdles most heavy drinkers face.