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So how do we actually cut back2
If you know there are scenarios that put you at risk of drinking in misaligned ways, consider avoiding them for a bit until you get some practice under your belt. If you know that brunch leads to six mimosas and a killer hangover, perhaps we skip it in favor of a coffee date with friends for now. Similarly, if there are specific people or groups of people who you only spend time drinking heavily with, maybe rain check until you feel more steady on your feet. We can’t avoid triggers entirely, but we can mitigate their intensity. (This also gives us an opportunity to work on our boundaries, something that can be extremely supportive to your choice to drink less.)
Craft a go-to answer
When folks wonder why you’re not down for the Beer Pong Olympics like you used to be, it’s helpful to have a go-to answer crafted ahead of time. Rather than panic in the moment and fumble your way through an answer, know what you’ll say—keep it short, simple, or even have a little white lie handy. Some options:
I have a yoga class in the morning
I’m trying to nail this big work thing
I’m trying to cut back right now
Plug into community
You don’t need to do this alone, even if it feels like no one else in your life understands. There are tons of different communities of folks who think and drink differently—try out local meetups focused on wellness, the outdoors, or niche hobbies. If the internet is more your style, there are tons of sober/sober-curious/mindful drinking communities out there who understand exactly where you are. Check out the forum right here in Reframe and connect with other folks working through their relationship with alcohol. There are so many people rooting for you!
Untangle your “stories” about alcohol
Finally, start deconstructing the way you think about alcohol right now. Our boozy society has told us (often since childhood) that alcohol is required for fun, for sadness, for stress, and so on. That it’s glamorous, exciting, sophisticated, sexy, that people who don’t drink like everyone else have a “problem,” that life is just less fun without it.
Throw these stories in the garbage and start this journey with an open mind; perhaps you don’t need alcohol to have fun or get through a stressful day or celebrate something. Maybe all the glamor is crafty marketing, maybe it’s just a chemical compound, maybe getting drunk isn’t all that sexy. Whatever your “stories” are about alcohol, just consider that maybe they’re not concrete truth, or at least maybe not the truth for you. Deconstructing these pre-existing notions about booze makes changing our habits much easier.
So how do we actually cut back
You’ve weighed the pros and cons of changing the way alcohol shows up in your life, you’ve taken a peek at the brain science behind alcohol use, and you’ve crafted your “why”... now you’re probably wondering how.
The answer you might not want to hear: changing your long term drinking habits is a complex process that requires you to fully understand why alcohol is impacting you the way it is, to gain skills and tools to navigate drinking in a way that aligns with your values, and to work through all of the things that might be causing you to numb out in the first place.
But because we know you need tools right now, here’s an answer that will give you a crash course in drinking less right away:
Track your drinking
This may sound simple, but it is very illuminating when we begin to actually track how much we’re drinking. (And accurately measure those drinks, by the way.) According to the National Institute on Health (NIH), a “standard” drink in the US is:
12 ounces of regular beer, which is usually about 5% alcohol
5 ounces of wine, which is typically about 12% alcohol
1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, which is about 40% alcohol
The CDC notes that “heavy drinking” is 15+ drinks per week for men, 8+ drinks per week for women. We share these figures to give you benchmarks, not to shame you—it’s often quite eye opening when we drill into the numbers.
Use your Reframe app to track your drinking and observe trends over time. When we have a clear picture of where we are right now, that helps build the determination we need to make lasting change.
We use the term “triggers” here to describe anything that sends a signal to our brain to consume alcohol, so don’t be put off if it feels like a bit of an intense word. We can be triggered to use alcohol by all sorts of things; stress, certain places, a time of day, and so on. When thinking about your triggers, start with:
People, places, and things
Sensory experiences like sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell
Emotions like stress, sadness, happiness, anger
Time of day, day of the week, special days
Of course, learning to socialize without booze (or with less booze) is a biggie. We’re used to using alcohol as a social lubricant, something that makes us feel more fun and at ease around other people. Because we know why it’s so hard to stop at “just one drink,” this is complicated—we may want that social lubricant, but perhaps one leads to ten and a trip to the porcelain throne more often than we’d like. To remedy this, we get really clear on what sort of social activities do and do not align with our values. We also begin fostering strong boundaries, so even if we’re in a social setting that is a little risky, we’re able to stick to our guns and drink in an aligned way.
Much like stress, overstimulation is something we attempt to dampen down through the use of alcohol. Overstimulation might look like anxiety, elation, exhaustion, or even too many good things happening at once. Our physical bodies have a unique threshold for these kinds of feelings—when we’re past our threshold, our bodies are desperately seeking regulation. Alcohol is a quick fix for this, with all sorts of nasty consequences. Instead, we build in tools that allow our central nervous system to relax and return to homeostasis.
Events associated with alcohol
We touched on this yesterday, but it’s high time we all untangle our association with booze and celebration. We’ve become so used to associating alcohol with things like weddings, birthdays, graduation parties… we even drink at baby showers now. Why do we do this? When we use alcohol, not only are we numbing the bad—we’re also numbing the good. We’re dampening these joyful occasions, blurring the edges, or even forgetting them altogether. When we flip our mindset on needing alcohol at these sorts of events, we build resilience against unhealthy drinking habits.
Though no two people are the same, and no two paths to cutting back are the same, we do know that we experience many similarities as we try to change our relationships with alcohol. Yesterday we touched on some tools to take with you to drink less, so today, let’s discuss common roadblocks that come up for folks changing the way they think and drink. To be certain, these are simplified touch points on topics we’ll dive into much greater depth in the coming weeks, but let’s get a bird’s eye view of what we’re up against, first.
We’re all battling with triggers. Like we said previously, “trigger” simply means anything that signals to our brains that we want to drink—they can be extremely subtle and don’t need to be as dramatic as the kind of thing you see in the movies. Triggers, of course, are the umbrella for all of these roadblocks that may present challenges. On a more granular level, though, we know that some common triggers for alcohol use are stress, boredom, social gatherings, overstimulation, and events associated with alcohol.
Let’s dive in.
A personal favorite subject of mine, stress is something that has an immense impact on our distress tolerance. When we’re stressed (and we mean both emotionally and physically), we have less capacity to think with our rational, thinking brain. Instead, our more animalistic brain structures are driving the bus, seeking instant gratification and pleasure. When we take active measures to reduce our stress, we preserve more energy to live in alignment with our values. (Which are often at odds with that animal brain that wants sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the data tells us that boredom is actually a really substantial trigger for alcohol use. This is rooted in the concept of “rapid state change,” or our desire to go from one state (bored) to another (not-bored), as soon as possible. Alcohol is a vehicle for rapid state change, until it changes our state so much that we lose our keys and text our exes. Filling our boredom with other, more adaptive, things (exercise, fun, connection, etc.) reduces our risk of reaching for booze to entertain ourselves.
Congratulations—you have officially completed Reframe’s 160-day program to help reframe the way you think and drink! Well done. We see all of the work you’ve put in over the last weeks and months, and no matter where you are today, you’ve taken substantial steps forward in your relationship with alcohol.
But wait, now what?
I’m so glad you asked, my friend! We’ve got two options for you:
Open your Reframe app tomorrow, and begin again at Day 1. Of course, this isn’t one of those Day 1’s, this is simply a review of each daily article you’ve read over the last 160 days. However, we are confident that you will learn just as much, if not more, this time around.
Why is that? Think back to who you were when you first downloaded this app—what was your mindset like? What was your daily life like? Were you in crisis mode, trying to just not drink? No matter where you began this program, all of the work you have put in over time has yielded a different you than you were the day you began Reframe.
You will glean new takeaways this time that your mind had no capacity to integrate the first time you read it. You have more space to build in tools. You have resilience and practice and alcohol-free days under your belt. You have proof that you can do this. This information will be read with fresh eyes and you will learn more this time around.
Reframe Thrive Coaching: ready to take it to the next level? Ready to unlock the best version of you, now that the booze is out of the way? Consider Reframe Thrive Coaching, our premium coaching program.
In Thrive Coaching, you’ll have high-touch, personalized access to our Reframe Thrive coaches. We know there’s so much more to life than just not drinking, and a big, vibrant life awaits you. Let us help you uncover that life through curated content from industry experts, live coaching, community, and all the good, juicy stuff you know you’re meant for. Don’t just not drink, THRIVE.
No matter what path you choose, you’re an integral part of the Reframe family and we’re grateful to do life alongside you. It takes an immense amount of courage and resilience to even consider changing your relationship with alcohol, let alone spend 160 days actively working to improve yourself.
Well done, my friend. We’ll see you again tomorrow, same place, same time!
Beth (your alcohol-free BFF + Head of Content here at Reframe)
Why we work on distress tolerance
Now that we’ve covered some tools and exercises for managing our stress, let’s review why any of this matters. We intuitively know that reducing our stress must be helpful for improving our relationship with alcohol, but when we better understand the mechanisms at play, it provides us with more motivation to make stress management an active part of our mindful drinking toolbox.
3 Reasons it’s important to properly manage stress:
Distress tolerance builds resilience
The first time we successfully manage a stressful situation without having to step outside of ourselves with the use of alcohol or other numbing mechanisms, we build just a little more strength for next time. This is the idea of resilience; we can cultivate resilience in many areas of our lives by building resilience to stress, and it translates well to other pieces of our wellness. When we know that we’ve done something once, we know we can do it again.
Distress tolerance is realistic
Notice that none of the things we’ve covered so far have said “remove all stress from your life,” because that is simply not realistic. Instead, we focus on stress reduction and distress tolerance - learning how to minimize stress where we can, and building tools to tolerate the stress that we cannot eliminate completely. The goal isn’t a perfect, idyllic life, because that doesn’t exist for anyone. But when we learn how to manage our stress, we build an adaptive skill into our toolbox.
Distress tolerance helps us cope before we’re too fried to think rationally
Since we know that we can’t expect to just have a shiny, perfect life with zero complications or challenges, we must build coping mechanisms into our life that help us get through those challenges. And we do this so that we don’t drain our energy so much that we are no longer able to make decisions through our prefrontal cortex and higher functioning. When we manage our energy well through stress reduction, we allow our higher functioning to maintain control, which in turn helps us cope without the use of alcohol.
The goal is not a total reinvention of your entire life overnight; doing so would only add more stress to your life as you make massive changes and adjustments in a short amount of time. Instead, focus on one thing you can change each day, and let those little changes add up over time.
Coping with Cravings2
Use the “Healthy Coping Tools Kit” in the Reframe app to begin the 20 minute cravings timer (the average length of a craving only lasts this long!)
Go outside and get some fresh air, take a walk
Movement of any kind - dance in your kitchen, turn on a yoga video, go for a run
Leave any sort of triggering situation that you may be in, if possible
Call your support network, plug into the sober-curious and alcohol-free community online, reach out to like-minded peers
Take a nap or go to bed early
Use calming essential oils or scents that bring you peace
Journal - write about where you see yourself in one year
Eat a nourishing snack or meal with healthy fats and proteins
Create something with your hands - art, knitting, clay, a vision board
Put on something that makes you feel confident - a favorite shirt, a bold lipstick, your power shoes
Turn your attention to someone else - get down on the floor to play with your kids, lighten your partner’s load by doing one of their normal chores, bring a warm meal to a friend
Whatever helps to redirect your attention, even for just a few minutes, will help you get through the next craving. And the craving after that? It’ll be even easier to bust as your brain unlearns the behaviors it learned in the past. You can do this.
Coping with Cravings
Cravings are undeniably one of the most difficult aspects of developing a more mindful relationship with alcohol. A craving is a strong urge to drink alcohol (or use another substance, even sugar), and can result in a multitude of physical and emotional experiences. A sudden longing, physical agitation in the body, a desire to quickly numb or elevate our mood, ruminating thoughts that you can’t seem to shake - all of these are potential manifestations of that craving state.
While you won’t likely experience strong cravings forever, your brain may continue to send these little cues for some time. As we explored earlier, much of habitual alcohol use or addiction is a learned behavior; our brains are trained to repeat adaptive behaviors, and they have mistakenly identified alcohol as helpful for our survival. So when you catch a whiff of red wine and you feel a sudden, strong urge to drink, that’s your brain trying to signal to you that you need that alcohol.
The good news is that we can anticipate many cravings ahead of time, and every time we resist a craving, we take one step closer to unlearning what we have taught our brains to believe about alcohol in the past. Each time we bust a craving, we’ve made a great victory on the winding path of improving our relationship with alcohol. And rather than white-knuckling through a craving, we can build a toolbox of helpful practices to distract and relieve us when we’re in the middle of a strong one. Cravings are always temporary - you can and will get through it. Let’s take a look at some potential tools.
Making the Commitment
You’ve done the T-chart, and you’ve weighed the pros and cons of continuing to drink as you are now, or not. You know that alcohol takes a toll on your physical and emotional health, your finances, your relationships, and your self-worth. If you’ve decided that it’s time to change your relationship with alcohol, read on.
There’s a popular phrase in the alcohol-free community: “Never Question the Decision,” or “NQTD.” In fact, this is such a guiding principle for many that they’ve chosen to have this mantra tattooed on their bodies.
NQTD speaks to the idea of making a decision and committing to it, and can be a powerful tool in our journey to change our relationship with alcohol.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been stuck in this limbo of wondering if the way you drink at present is harming you, deciding it’s fine, then swinging back with the next hangover. We can spend months or years feeling like the way alcohol is showing up in our lives is no longer serving us before we begin to make a change. This is a normal experience, my friend. (Turns out, it’s incredibly difficult to drink an addictive substance “responsibly. Go figure.)
But when we know that reducing our alcohol intake is the best choice for our wellbeing, and we commit to that change without question, it paves a path forward. It takes the mental gymnastics off the table, it frees up our brain power for more important things, and it helps us feel assured in our choice.
We know that the neuroscience of habitual alcohol use is much more complex than just willpower alone, so many of us experience a thousand hangovers before something changes and alcohol begins to show up for us differently. But there’s a substantial mental shift that happens when you commit to making a substantial change, even if it takes some time for our brain chemistry to catch up to our resolve.
We also know that when we begin to question our decision to reduce our drinking, we’re putting ourselves at risk for using alcohol to excess again. When our resolve is shaky, when we start to have a rosy view of drinking again, we’re likely to give it another try. This is why “never question the decision” is so powerful; when we remove the constant weighing of the pros and cons, we’re steady in our decision.
Today, write NQTD down on a few sticky notes to post around your home and work. Commit to this change you’ve chosen for yourself, and let’s get to work.