Sober October: What It Is, and Why You Should Try It
Sober October, much like Dry January, is an unofficial national observance of temporary sobriety, often framed as a detox from the excesses of summer vacations. While our culture celebrates alcohol as an elevation of our mundane lives, or a panacea for unpleasant feelings, most of us recognize that drinking too much is...well, too much. A break seems logical to empty the tank and start over, and it’s fitting that celebrants can recognize the end of Sober October with a Halloween party.
However, for those of us who struggle to limit our drinking, or simply want to break a bad habit, Sober October can be a good introduction to sobriety that can have a real impact on your personal growth. Read more to learn about what Sober October can look like emotionally and physically, and how you can get the most out of your experience.
A few guidelines to begin
Everyone’s sobriety will look different because the reasons we drink in excess, or at all, are as unique to us as our fingerprints. However, keeping certain guidelines in mind while you’re trying it out will make things easier on you physically and emotionally.
1. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Whether you’re just trying to give your liver a break, or you’re seriously considering long-term sobriety, your journey is made up of many small steps, and each one will teach you something. Celebrate every small victory, and congratulate yourself on every day you stick to your goals. Breaking the patterns of our lives isn’t easy, but it’s like breaking down a stone with drops of water - have patience with yourself. If you put too much pressure on yourself this won’t be enjoyable, and you’ll be less likely to succeed. If you give in one day, don’t beat yourself up about it. Start over the next day – you want progress, not perfection.
2. Connect with others who are doing Sober October
Whether they’re friends or speakers on a podcast. Sticking to sobriety is difficult and telling others about your experience or listening to their stories can comfort and inspire you. Hanging out with a friend who is already sober, or who wants to try Sober October with you, can strengthen the bond between you and validate the work you’re doing not to drink.
Many of us drink because of social anxiety, or through sheer habit during social engagements. The often social element of alcohol use and abuse can’t go unconsidered – make sure the part of you that needs human connection is satisfied. That means finding or building shared experiences of positive sobriety with others. Make your sobriety the core of your social life in the same way many of us make alcohol the core of our social lives. Celebrate your sobriety with great meals, fun trips, or just quality time with people you love, and your brain will start associating social connection with sobriety rather than drinking.
3. Stay active physically
If you’re used to drinking regularly, your brain and body have adapted to the pattern you’ve created and will default to that pattern in a resting state. That means if you sit around the house watching TV, most likely you will start to crave alcohol. Luckily, we have the power to change the patterns we build in ourselves, because we were the ones who created those patterns in the first place. Physical activity is a great way to flush stress hormones, release endorphins, and build a flexible neurochemical environment to start changing things. We learn best when we are happy and healthy, and right now your brain needs to re-learn how to regulate its mood. Drinking alcohol causes your brain to release feel-good chemicals like dopamine, and over a long period your brain can learn to stop releasing those chemicals unless you’re drinking. Exercise can help reset this pattern and reduce the crankiness most people experience in the initial stages of sobriety. You don’t have to become an Olympic athlete. Take a walk around your neighborhood, go for a bike ride, do some yoga - anything that gets your blood pumping a little faster - at least once a week, then build from there.
4. Pay attention to your triggers
The first thing you learn in Alcoholics Anonymous is that you are powerless over alcohol, and that to stop drinking you need to trust yourself to a higher power. Even if you’re not interested in getting this deep, there’s some very applicable wisdom in here. If you entrust your sobriety to your willpower alone, you’re making things unnecessarily hard on yourself. It’s important to consider and keep an eye out for things that make you crave alcohol. Perhaps it’s seeing a specific friend you primarily socialize with by drinking, or finding a forgotten bottle of wine in the back of your fridge. Try to figure out what these things are, and if at all possible, stay away from them. Ask your partner or roommate to clear the house of any alcohol for you. Let your friend you drink with know what you’re trying to do, and if they’re a good supportive friend, they will understand and appreciate your efforts and may even try sobriety with you just so they can enjoy your company more.
Setting yourself up for success isn’t cheating. Even if Sober October is framed as a challenge, that doesn’t mean it’s a game with rules. Do everything you can to make this time fun, memorable, and low-stress. Put yourself in places and situations where drinking alcohol isn’t an option, so even if your willpower lapses you’re in a safe space. Take some time for yourself to get used to sobriety and take baby steps going back out into situations where you might be tempted to drink. Alcohol is a powerful drug that can hijack our better judgment without us even realizing it, and it pays to be aware of that power when you’re working on staying sober.
Things to watch out for
Depending on your current level of alcohol use, you may experience some rough times especially in the beginning of your journey that may worry or discourage you.
If you drink to allay anxiety or depression, you may feel your symptoms grow worse in the initial stages of sobriety. You’ve removed a form of self-medication from your regimen and your body is going to react to the change. However, the relief alcohol provides is brief and problematic. As we said before, alcohol releases dopamine in the brain among other chemicals and artificially boosts your mood. Anyone who’s experienced the Sunday Scaries after a crazy Saturday night knows that after that high is gone, you can be left lower than before, and your brain will crave alcohol to get back to “normal.” Over time your brain can even get used to that artificial boost and may have trouble recreating it sober, leaving you sad, anxious, and drained as you adjust to a life without alcohol. Know that this is normal, but it’s important to get the right help.
Let a loved one know how you’re feeling and get some emotional support, or talk to a therapist about what feelings are coming up for you at this time. Exploring why it’s difficult to stop drinking can reveal the root emotions that make us drink in the first place, and sitting with these negative feelings for a bit, while painful, provides clarity that may escape us in our drinking lives. It’s important to make use of that clarity while you have it, and being proactive in attending to your emotional wellbeing will make this process easier and provide real benefits for your personal growth.
You can also experience physical symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol. This will depend on the severity of your drinking, but can include headaches, fatigue, and other problems. If you are experiencing serious physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal (shakiness, sweating, loss of appetite, nausea) we encourage you to seek medical advice. A doctor can assess your health and determine if you need medication or other support to quit drinking safely.
Benefits you might notice
1. Physical Health
Most of us are aware of the negative physical effects of alcohol use. Rather than list mortality statistics, calorie counts of popular drinks, or other data which we encourage you to review online (https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/index.htm), we want to outline the benefits to your physical health and appearance you’ll be most likely to notice at the end of your month. First, many people pursuing sobriety report better sleep, fewer digestive problems, and clearer skin among other changes. Many experience weight loss, improved performance during physical activity and increased sex drive. Some people even notice a “glow” in themselves or others who are taking a break from alcohol. Everyone’s body reacts differently to this change and there’s other lifestyle factors to consider, but you may find that drinking less also encourages other healthy behavior like exercise, regular sleep cycles, and controlled appetite.
2. Mental Health
We discussed the neurochemical effects of alcohol and sobriety several times above, but it bears repeating that drinking causes an imbalance in your brain, and stopping can restore that balance. Some benefits to your mental health that you may experience, especially later in the process, include more mental stamina and more emotional resilience. You may feel more content with your life, less burdened by stress, and more empowered to reach your goals. As you remove the social crutch that alcohol can provide, you may notice greater confidence in social situations, or a deeper connection with the people and things you love as you eschew those situations for sober activities. While it may be difficult to manage your emotions without alcohol, especially in the beginning, taking a break gets you more used to confronting those emotions and working through them.
3. Financial Health
Being broke stresses us out, and a lot of us are most broke when we are drinking a lot. Whether it’s impulse shopping with a bottle of wine at home, paying for Ubers when you’re too drunk to go home on the train, or just the sheer expense of 4-5 $15 cocktails a night, cutting drinking out of your life can have a good effect on your wallet, and consequently on your mental wellbeing. It also might be nice to use the money you’re saving for a reward at the end of your sober period, or as a jumping off point for the adventure of a life of sobriety!
Coming back to the social aspect of alcohol, your relationships may evolve in ways you don’t expect during this time. While not all of these evolutions will be pain free, you’ll probably find they benefit you in the long run. Without alcohol to change your personality or demeanor, people you know will start to see another side of you that’s new to them. It’s important to notice who appreciates this change and who can’t deal with it.
Most of us have friends for different occasions - some are party friends, and some are chill friends. There may be a part of your social circle who only knows you as a drinking person, and who may be really disturbed if you stop drinking. This can be for many reasons - they may simply not be compatible with the real you, or they may feel challenged by your success in an area they either haven’t approached, or have failed in. If you realize that some of your friends are only good for you when you’re drinking, it’s a good sign to give those friends some space. You may be able to reconnect with them more at a later time, but right now they probably won’t be the best influence for you.
It’s important to be close with people who share and validate our goals, or who at least care about us enough to accept things that are different about us, and congratulate us on life changes even if they aren’t the ones they would choose. Focus on friends who are accepting of, or even happy about your sobriety because most likely they have the care and insight to be a good friend to you in the long run. Losing any relationship is hard, even if it’s problematic. You don’t have to fire people from your life, but you should definitely take a break from them to give yourself perspective on the friendship and see if it’s worth the continued investment.
Taking a break from drinking can be challenging, and for some of us more challenging than others. However, if you’re feeling stuck in a rut and just want to shake things up a little, giving Sober October a try can make a real difference. Whether you’re just taking a break or trying to get into a sober life, we wish you luck, and encourage you to reach out for an appointment if talking to a therapist can help you on your journey.