This blog post provides a reflective account of my own experiences participating in Dry January – an alcohol abstinence challenge initiated by Alcohol Change UK that encourages people to reduce their levels of alcohol consumption. As an experimental social psychologist, my research investigates the influences of contextual and social factors on alcohol consumption and related behaviours. Working alongside collaborators at Edge Hill and Aston University, our work to date has suggested that frequent alcohol consumption is associated with our motivations and expected outcomes of drinking, as well as heightened attention towards alcohol-related cues. It was never my intention to blog about my experiences of Dry January; it was simply a personal endeavour that I aimed to complete. However, as the days went on, I noticed a lot of parallels with my own research, as well as becoming more cognisant about wider issues embedded in the UK’s drinking culture. I hope that my reflections below will speak to other people’s experiences associated with taking part, as well as highlighting cultural issues with our relationship with alcohol, and how we might best support those who wish to reduce their consumption.
What is Dry January?
“Dry January” is a 1-month challenge where people give up alcohol for the month of January. Typically completed with the aid of a phone app, the overarching goal is to refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages for 31-days, with badges rewarded for day streaks, drinking in moderation, reducing alcohol intake, and total dry days. At the end of each day, the participant completes an online calendar, responding whether they’ve stayed ‘Dry’, ‘drank’, or ‘drank as planned’. Given the nascent stage of this particular challenge (2013), there has been little research conducted on the benefits and potential drawbacks of Dry January. However, research has suggested that Dry January can have a range of positive health-related and psychological benefits, ranging from improved sleep, weight loss, and enhanced self-control (see De Visser et al., 2016). Further, whilst some have proposed that Dry January may lead to a ‘rebound effect’ (i.e., binge February), the majority of available research suggests that a period of abstinence can encourage longer term reductions in drinking (Bray et al., 2010; De Visser et al., 2016). This is because, after a person has made a commitment to engage in behaviour change, they are more likely to maintain these changes in the future (de Visser et al., 2017).
Reflections on Dry January
Learning about the reasons I drink
According to the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), I am categorised as a ‘low risk drinker’ with an overall score of 7 out of 40 (anything above 8 is seen as higher risk). Personally, I would classify myself as an ‘occasional social drinker’, who rarely binge drinks but instead has ‘one or two every now and again’. Over the Christmas period, I found myself overindulging in unhealthy foods and drinking more alcohol and I therefore decided to take part in Dry January to regulate my behaviour and explore the benefits. Early in the New Year, I found it relatively easy to abstain from alcohol, simply because I felt I’d had my fill over the festive period (my AUDIT score would have been temporarily higher!). As the days turned into weeks, however, I found myself thinking about reaching for an alcoholic drink a lot more. I then stopped to think about when and why I wanted an alcoholic drink, and realised that I tend to drink to alleviate stress or to relax in social situations. In the alcohol literature, these reasons are known as ‘drinking motives’ (see Kuntsche et al., 2006), which are the valued outcomes that people associate with drinking alcohol. The examples I provide are known as ‘coping’ (i.e., to deal with negative emotions) and ‘social’ motives (i.e., to enhance interactions), but there are also enhancement (i.e., to heighten mood) and conformity motives (i.e., to avoid social pressure or a need to fit in). Interestingly, research has shown that these drinking motives are a unique predictor of alcohol consumption and related behaviours (Kuntsche et al., 2014; Merrill & Read, 2010).
Another insight I had was that my tendency to drink alcohol in low-quantity, but rather frequently, may influence me to underestimate my true alcohol consumption. The limitations of self-report measures of alcohol consumption could be discussed at length, but the main point here is that such behaviour may be easily forgotten and unreliability reported. In addition, it may mask viewing consumption as a ‘problem’ and be an obstacle to behaviour change. Partaking in Dry January made me realise how I might reach for a drink without really counting it or thinking that I need to cut down.
Alcohol cues are everywhere
Seeing an advertisement for alcohol in a drinking establishment (i.e., pubs and bars) comes as no surprise, particularly in UK culture. However, abstaining from alcohol made me evaluate the quantity of alcohol advertisements we see in our everyday lives and the appropriateness of their placement. During a conference visit in January, I stayed at a well-known hotel chain and found promotional offers for alcohol in the reception lobby, as well as included in leaflets in my room. Throughout Dry January I became more and more aware of the number of alcohol adverts that were aired on television and decorative signs in shops that glamorised drinking. I found my heightened awareness of this very interesting and this led me to think more about something we, as researchers, call ‘cue reactivity’. Here, research shows that alcohol-related cues capture and hold the attention of those who drink alcohol and appear to increase subjective cravings for alcohol (see Field et al., 2009). Moreover, such attentional processing seems to be heightened in heavy drinkers and even abstinent alcoholics (Field et al., 2013). Such advertisements challenged my self-control to not drink by heightening my craving for alcohol, which led me to think about the implications that such advertising has for those with problematic alcohol use, or alcohol-related disorders. In the UK, alcohol-related adverts are regulated so that they do not condone or encourage irresponsible or immoderate drinking. Unlike cigarette advertising which is banned on television and heavily regulated in supermarkets (e.g., cigarettes hidden behind a screen), however, alcohol advertising appears to be much more relaxed. Let’s compare a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of alcohol, for example; the packaging of cigarettes includes large health warnings on 65% of the front and back, a brand name in standard font, and drab colours. The packaging of alcohol, on the other hand, includes limited (or no) health warnings, bright colours and attractive images, and beverages themselves come in many different colours and flavours. It therefore seems that more work needs to be done to regulate the branding and advertisement of alcohol to make them less attractive and ‘wanted’. Health warnings and nutritional labels would raise awareness of the health implications of consumption, and help people to make informed decisions with regards to drinking.
Challenging conversations around drinking
There were a few occasions during Dry January where my choice not to drink during social occasions was questioned by others, and people tried to influence this decision. Statements such as “just have one and then don’t drink tomorrow”, or “have a beer now and then a glass of water” were voiced, perhaps with the aim to test my self-control. This made me think about the wider conversations we have about drinking and the societal norms associated with alcohol; we wouldn’t ask someone why they are drinking, so why is it okay to ask someone why they’re not? I found that the most effective way of dealing with this was to have open conservations about the benefits of Dry January and to engage in discussion with people about wider problems regarding the UK’s binge drinking culture (see Pincock, 2003). It was interesting to outline the many different reasons why people may choose to moderate their alcohol consumption, or not to drink, spanning choice (e.g., not feeling compelled to drink in social circles), finance (deciding to drive to a venue rather than drinking to save money), and health (weight loss, better sleep, concentration, and addiction). In relation to this, another challenging experience of taking part in Dry January concerned situations in which others expected me to pay for a round of drinks, or split the bill, when they had been drinking alcohol and I hadn’t. In some establishments, the cost of an alcoholic beverage is up to four-times the cost of a soft drink, so the bill might be quite surprising! Again, this may have been overcome with a simple conversation, but the stronger message here is that we need to be more aware of how we treat people who are not drinking and think more carefully about how we can support them.
So how did I get on?
Out of the 31 days in January, I managed 26 days dry; 1 of these was a ‘drinking as planned’ day, whilst the other 4 were days in which I drank in moderation. Using the phone app was extremely helpful for monitoring and managing my behaviour; over the course of my alcohol-free days, my best streak was 14 days, and I saved substantial money and calories. Some people have said “so you didn’t complete Dry Jan?!”, and again I think this rhetoric is problematic. Although I didn’t complete 31 whole days, the challenge allowed me to regulate my consumption and cut down significantly. It also helped me to think about helpful strategies to moderate my drinking, such as adding on an extra “dry” day to my calendar after an unplanned drinking session, and to not give up on the challenge if I had drank. The most positive experience of Dry January for me, however, has been reflecting on the conversations we have about alcohol, and thinking about ways in which we can support people who chose to reduce their intake or abstain all together. It has also opened my eyes to cultural and societal factors that influence alcohol consumption (e.g., alcohol advertising), which may act as an obstacle to reducing intake. For me, Dry January has been a fundamentally interesting reflective experience, both as a participant and an alcohol researcher, and has aided my awareness of the benefits and barriers that people face when making the choice to cut down or abstain from drinking, and how we might best support them.
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