In April of 2020, I took the first steps towards starting to quit drinking alcohol. Two and a half years later, I am still sober, and eternally thankful for that decision.
Now, it’s important to note: I was never what anyone would call a “problem drinker” before this life change. Sure, I had a drink or two every day or so, and drank socially at dinners and parties, but nothing that most would see as alcoholism. That said, as you read this article, you’ll see why even “normal drinking” can have a problematic side, and may be worth examining and addressing.
What follows is an in-depth guide to how to stop drinking alcohol, with special emphasis on why it might be worthwhile to try, even for a week or month. Now, to be clear: I am speaking here from my personal experience as a casual drinker, and from the experiences of my friends who took this journey with me — but I’m an English teacher and artist, not a doctor or therapist. Given this, please use your own judgment with regards to your specific situation, and seek trained help when need be. Contexts vary widely, and this advice is only applicable to some.
1. Ask: WHY stop drinking alcohol?
As with any habit change, the fundamental first step is to clarify your “WHY” — the driving reason behind your desire to shift something. For most of my adult life (and I’m 41 years old now), I was an extremely happy drinker, and saw zero need to change my imbibing patterns.
Alcohol brought me transportive joy, fun, escape, and social connection. I couldn’t imagine recreational situations without drinking — and the idea of cutting it out frankly scared me. Scared me, eh? That was the first red flag.
2. Check: What are you using alcohol for?
When the events of early 2020 hit and everything was shut down, I had a stark opportunity to look my drinking squarely in the face. In isolation — away from the hubbub of restaurants, bars, and parties, I could see it clearly for what it was:
• Drinking was a crutch I was using to relax in social and relationship situations that made me nervous.
• I was using drinking as an excuse to act in “free” ways that I was too scared to do totally sober.
• Alcohol had become my main tool to “relax,“ “escape,” and “reset” — but as my body got older, it was having that positive effect more erratically, and often leaving me feeling ill after even one drink.
3. Notice reactions about a pause.
Once I honestly examined my reasons for drinking, I realized that having a crutch of that level was not something I wanted in my life — but this is when things got scary. As I pondered the idea of quitting alcohol for just a week, I realized I was… terrified!
What?! A big, strong, mature gal like me, scared to stop drinking for just a measly week? What was going on? It was at this moment that I plainly saw my level of dependency on the substance. Sure, I wasn’t a classic alcoholic, but over the decades, alcohol had become so tightly ingrained in the fabric of my daily activities that I didn’t know how I would do them, or who I would be without it. Yikes. All the more reason to try to step back.
4. Find friends for the journey.
By an amazing stroke of luck, that very week, two different friends randomly reached out to me to share that they were going to stop drinking alcohol for a month, and wondered if I might join the quest with them. What was funny was that each of us had been nervous to bring up the topic, fearing judgment — little realizing that the other person was hoping for the exact same goal!
If you are reading this and lamenting that no one around you wants to join in cutting back, I encourage you to float some feelers verbally, by text, and by social media. There are more people out there than you think who are in the same stage of reckoning, and honestly, I’m not sure I would have gotten through the initial painful stage without company. Texting and calling with these buddies was essential support, so find yours.
5. Prepare for withdrawal!
I’m not going to lie: The first week of quitting alcohol was HARD. Shockingly hard. In fact, the whole first month was hard. All I could think about was how much more relaxed I’d feel if I just had one drink, or how much better a certain situation would be with the buzz of alcohol.
I felt stripped naked without my comforting ritual. The internal battles were hard enough, but externally, some friends gave me flak when we went out together, saying they felt uncomfortable, or it was weird that I wasn’t drinking. I tried to set them at ease by saying I was just quitting for one month — but the more days that passed, the more I realized how insidiously alcohol had seeped into every part of my life, and into our entire society… and the more determined I was to experience life sober.
6. Read about alcohol as a carcinogen and toxin.
Two weeks in, I shared about my month of sobriety challenge on social media. In reaction, a number of people commented that they had been sober for years, spurred by studies about alcohol being a carcinogen and toxin.
HUH?! I had not heard alcohol described to this level of physically harmful! As far as I understood, as long as you were imbibing in moderation, wine could even be a health food. Oh, no, no, no, these friends responded, posting a few links of documentation — there is nothing healthy about alcohol at all. We have all been duped, hook, line and sinker, by the big money behind the companies.
I began reading, and… holy cow. If you skim nothing else on the topic, browse this Mother Jones article about the clearly documented links between drinking (any amount) and several types of cancers. Listen: I’m a health nut. I work out constantly, eat organic food, and don’t even use plastic Tupperware, I’m so into avoiding toxins. And yet I’d been pouring a carcinogen down my throat?! Ugh! My resolve to continue sobriety strengthened.
A note about illness and alcohol: One place to examine in order to assess whether cutting drinking might be beneficial is noticing your experience around sickness and booze. Upon reflection, I realized that I would usually keep imbibing, even when trying to recover from a cold or other sickness. Huh?! Why? If alcohol is a verified toxin, why the heck did I choose to tax my body in this way while supposedly trying to heal? It all goes back to #3: pausing for more than a very short time felt too difficult. Yeek — red flag.
7. Build your toolkit: Meditation, etc.
Despite my mental understanding that I wanted to quit alcohol for a full month, my body had other desires. I began having exceedingly strong cravings to drink — again which unnerved me, because I hadn’t thought of myself as dependent.
Luckily, one of my sobriety buddies had been reading the book (affiliate link here), Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice Not to Drink in a Society Obsessed with Alcohol, by Holly Whittaker, and though I never ultimately read the book, my friend’s summaries of key points were instrumental in keeping me going. Fundamentally, the text is about identifying what you were using alcohol as a crutch for, then developing an alternate set of “tools” in your “tool belt” to more healthily fulfill the same functions.
Here’s an example: If you were using alcohol to relax when nervous, start practicing meditation instead. This sounds cheesy, but the studies on the positive mental and physical health effects of meditation are astounding. It was during this first month that I found the app, Insight Timer (see my full explanation at that link), and I’ve been using it for restorative 5-minute daily mediations ever since! Life-changing.
Another example: If you were using alcohol to feel freer, try tapping INTO what your body is feeling instead of attempting to numb it and wash it away. I found Reiki energy work especially effective for this, because it unveiled the astounding power of the body to experience magic — naturally and healthily.
8. Embrace exercise and sleep.
The next “toolkit” example deserves its own blurb, because it was so key. If you were using alcohol for a buzz of good feelings, regular exercise can beautifully replace that “high” via endorphins — and build muscles and cardiovascular health at the same time! It was during this first month of quitting drinking that I began regular at-home workouts, and my exercise motivation began to solidify.
As I shared earlier, part of why I was drinking was an escape, but I began to find an even better escape during the 30-45 minutes I entered my workout space and clicked play on the next fitness video. Such a sense of accomplishment finishing each program, too! Feel free to check out my advice on the best at-home workout for beginners, for a whole geeky ranking and explanation.
Speaking of finding that “escape” and “high,” do not underestimate the power of SLEEP. Despite the fact that alcohol is a depressant, I soon realized that I had been using it (paired with coffee or Red Bull) to push through extreme exhaustion. Once I quit drinking, I was actually able to hear my body crying out to just get some rest. Whenever I listened to that call and hit the sack early for a full night’s sleep — ooh, what a delicious payoff of energy and health that yielded!
9. Explore tea.
During a particularly strong bout of alcohol cravings, I texted a friend begging for advice. He gave me a suggestion that would revolutionize the process for me: TEA. He explained that the act of holding something warm and comforting and taking small sips over the course of an hour (ideally with an exotic flavor) does wonders for curbing cravings. This friend is not a teetotaler, but he used this tea trick to help with food cravings during his weight loss process.
Since that text, I’ve gone through one to four teabags a day! In 2020, I also quit coffee, so green tea is what I use right now when I want a zing and a kick, while herbal tea soothes and calms. I find the flavors of rooibos, chamomile, lemongrass, and ginger to be particularly satisfying. Sure, mocktails are fun during a night out on the town with friends, but I find hot tea during a fancy dinner an absolutely lovely replacement for wine now — and a less expensive one, too.
As you may have noticed from the suggestions in #7 through #9, the basic theory of changing a habit is that humans have great difficulty simply cutting out one behavior without replacing it with something that also has allure and excitement. Get creative in your distract and replace strategies!
10. Address mental health.
I am clear that much drug and alcohol use is spurred by trying to self-medicate for mental health needs. I say this with compassion and understanding, and to suggest that there may be other ways to more effectively treat these real and foundational concerns.
In my case, I deal with Anxiety and am an HSP (affiliate book link: Highly Sensitive Person) — a trait which means I am shockingly sensitive to tiny details around me. For example, when I’m out with a group of people, I can piece together body language and utterances to essentially read people’s thoughts — which makes socializing stressful. Moreover, as a People Pleaser, I often feel nervous saying what I actually feel and want. Was I using drinking to try to calm all these social stresses down? Sure was.
Because mental health and substances can be so intertwined, I STRONGLY urge anyone in the process of quitting drinking alcohol to get a therapist. Many therapists do online Zoom appointments and are covered by insurance, making them $20 or less an appointment. Like all humans, I still have a long way to go in mental health and personal development, but I’m muuuuuuch happier with where I am with it now than before I quit drinking and started therapy.
11. Clarify the bad: nausea, cost, etc.
A tactic I found highly effective in quitting drinking was becoming very present to the negative effects alcohol had on me. I became adept at conjuring up that particular exhausted nausea that beer left me with, or the $70 a night of drinking cost, or the way red wine stained my teeth, or the bout of poor judgment that came from that extra gin and tonic. Whenever a craving bubbled up, I became able to smooth it down with a nasty memory!
12. Notice the benefits: money, weight loss, etc.
The flip side of remembering the bad about alcohol is noticing the good of quitting — and for me, the benefits have been so good, they spur me forward in sobriety, month after month. Most noticeably, I lost a bunch of weight, and my overall health very clearly improved. You may also notice clearer skin, less fatigue, and calmer moods. Second, the amount of money I saved each month was substantial. You don’t realize how much booze adds up until all that cash is back in your account!
Above all, however, since quitting drinking, I simply feel better about myself. I am empowered, knowing that each choice I make is sober, brave, and truly me. I also have a whole set of new strategies to use at any given moment, so I never need to worry about whether there will be alcohol around to “take the edge off.” (Yes, there were social events I dreaded going to because the only tool I had to address social anxiety was drinking, but it was a dry event and I wouldn’t have booze to help.)
13. Gather strategies for naysayers.
When a topic triggers people’s own worries or insecurities, they often say odd — or even hurtful — things. (See: “What NOT to Say to Someone Going Through Divorce.”) Drinking is such a loaded topic for so many people that I 100% guarantee you’ll hear bizarre reactions.
My “favorite” utterances were about travel. In my second year of sobriety, I was planning a trip from Portland to Bend, Oregon. “You can’t go to Oregon if you don’t drink!” someone gasped to me in all seriousness. “It has so many craft breweries — it would be such a waste. What would you even do there without alcohol?” For heaven’s sake… they needn’t have worried for two seconds. I was just fine with the glorious mountain hiking and good food and company, thank you very much.
Responding to these comments (and the pressure to drink that goes with them) will require you to be very clear in the benefits of your sobriety in order to be firm in your decision, and to listen to your own self instead of others around you. At first I found these comments upsetting and difficult to deal with — but over time they’ve just become funny, and are as easy to parry as a raindrop.
Ultimately, you don’t owe anyone an explanation for the life choices that make you happy. If people around you persist in harassment, distancing yourself from those individuals may be the best option, when possible.
14. Think through flexibility.
I believe it helped my alcohol quitting process that both my friend and I framed it as, “A small sip here and there is fine.” Now, I know for many people — especially those who struggle with alcoholism and addiction — “Cold Turkey” 100% quitting is the way to go, so modify this tip to fit your specific situation. However, there have been several benefits in me keeping things flexible.
First, being open to having small tastes of alcohol keeps me from feeling rigid or scared. I can still enjoy some fancy wine on my tongue every once in a while when a friend orders it at a fancy meal, but the fact that that tiny sip doesn’t spur cravings anymore (wow!) is extremely reassuring — and very surprising after the many years I enjoyed drinks. These samples keep me from feeling scared that I’ll relapse, because each time I’ve been able to taste, then confidently walk away.
Second, allowing a sip or two helps me cement my decision to stop drinking altogether. About a year into sobriety, I decided to try drinking one full beer with a friend, just to assess the effect. Whoa — I felt terrible! Thanks to the perspective stepping away from alcohol had given (along with how it allowed me to be more in touch with my body), I could acutely notice how heavy, tired, and nauseous the beer made me feel. Why had it held such sway over me?! I haven’t imbibed more than a few sips of alcohol since then.
15. Process what you notice.
When you are able to step outside of something that nearly everyone else in society is obsessed with, you start to see some crazy things. It’s like making it outside The Matrix and looking back at the bizarre illusion everyone else is still in.
Getting divorced makes you see all the odd things about marriage that people put up with, quitting teaching makes you wonder how you ever graded 140 papers a day, and stopping drinking spins your head when you realize how much our society worships booze.
It was so shocking that I quit drinking that I was literally interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Mail about it. “This is news?!” I asked. The reporters affirmed: “Yes — these days many people are ramping up their alcohol consumption, not cutting it.” Wow. It’s that big a deal in our society, eh? But remembering how much of a pull drinking used to have on me, I get it.
Another moment for me that set this in stark relief: Being at a party (shortly after reading that Mother Jones article about how alcohol is a carcinogen), watching dozens of people willfully pour toxins down their throats that cost hundreds of dollars all together — and for what? What was the point? Because they were scared to talk to each other or dance without drinking?! The whole thing seemed really sad.
This feeling of confusion, once outside of the Drinking Matrix, is a hard one to grapple with. I love my fellow humans, and I do not want to walk around frowning on what others choose to do, if it is something that brings them joy. That said, what I want most of all is for all people to be free, fulfilled, happy, and healthy.
I absolutely still adore and hang out with people who drink — I remember how fun it was for me back in the day — and I will never force my ways upon others. Ultimately, however, I do hope that this article helps a few more people out there see what opens up in their lives if they step away from alcohol and reconnect with themselves… if only for a week.
16. “Let go of that which no longer serves you.”
Since I published this article, several people have written to me explaining that they don’t want to quit drinking because they love wine for its flavor, and for how it enhances food. If that (or something similar) is your case, great! That means that alcohol is still serving you in some way, and its benefits are outweighing its problems.
That said, the next thing these folks usually say is something like, “The only thing is that I know wine is empty calories and is hurting my weight loss goals. And also drinking is making it difficult for me to sleep at night.” Ok, given this information, the question becomes: Is alcohol still serving you, overall? Yes, it is a documented fact that alcohol prevents weight loss and disrupts sleep, so you might ask: What is more important to you: Flavors on your tongue, or body health?
Only you can answer this for yourself, and the answer may lie in an in-between decision, such as cutting back consumption, but not quitting entirely. Though it may seem that I am pushing for one answer here, I’m not — I had decades of joy thanks to alcohol that I don’t regret. The time just came where the costs outweighed the benefits. As a friend once said, “When it’s time to quit, you know.”
17. Extend your goal time, if possible.
If you’re considering trying to stop drinking for a time, I suggest creating progressive, extending goals of sobriety. First, try setting the goal of one week (perhaps tapering down alcohol amounts first, if you drink a lot now). Then if you achieve that, extend your goal to 21 days (apparently it’s a myth that habits take 3 weeks to stick, but I still believe it). Then go for a month — then three months, then a year… and so on!
Why do this? As I learned from how my workout programs are structured, having clear benchmarks divided into “phases” makes each step of the process satisfyingly achievable. It also creates happy celebration points along the way.
Now, many people these days try “Dry January,” where they stop drinking for one month, which is fabulous… but why stop at just one month? The health benefits I experienced — especially weight loss, personal confidence, and saving money — became most clear after the three-month mark, and have only increased since then. I’d argue that the longer you can go in sobriety, the better!
How to Stop Drinking Alcohol, in Sum
Ultimately, however, no one can decide whether a choice is right for your life except for you. No change or habit will stick unless you are clear on your own “WHY.” Doing something just because you “should” won’t last a day.
If you’ve read this article on how to stop drinking alcohol and have decided that quitting isn’t right for you at this time, that’s fine — there are so many other ways to contribute to your health and to this world; focus on those instead.
If you’ve read this piece and are “sober curious” — intrigued but nervous about quitting drinking, give this method a try, aiming for just one week of sobriety as your initial goal. Even those seven days will be hugely illuminating. Finally, if you’re fully excited about this journey, and clear enough on your “WHY” to go a full month or longer without alcohol, I send you lots of hugs and energy, and invite you to keep us posted on how it goes!
No matter where you are on this path, I’m so curious to hear from you in the comments section, below. Have you quit drinking before, either for a week, or for a lifetime? What are your thoughts and experiences on the topic? Do share!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!