If you are cutting down, taking a break or quitting alcohol, or just thinking about changing your drinking, you might be wondering how you can relax without drinking alcohol.
Relaxation is a priority for many people right now because the world is a stressful place. Living through the pandemic, living with social injustice and living with financial insecurity might be having a direct impact on your stress levels. And relaxation shouldn’t just be for people with privilege. Learning to relax builds your resilience and gives you an inner resource to cope with life’s challenges. Relaxation – encoded as rest and leisure – is actually a human right.
In many cultures, alcohol plays a big role in ideas about relaxation. Many people drink to unwind at the end of a difficult day. Some drink to cope with life’s difficulties. Others use alcohol to help them get to sleep.
So if you want alcohol-free ways to relax, you’re in the right place. Read on to discover more about the role of alcohol in relaxation, and what being relaxed actually means. And learn 101 ways to relax without drinking alcohol, drawn from the experience of members of the Club Soda community.
Alcohol and relaxation
Alcohol is relaxing. Or at least, if you expect alcohol to be relaxing, it will have that effect on you.
But the reality is more complicated. Alcohol is a simple substance that affects your brain and body in complex ways. Because your brain and body are changing day by day, alcohol’s effects aren’t predictable. And as you drink over time, your tolerance for alcohol increases, so this changes how you respond to alcohol.
Alcohol is a sedative. It makes you feel sleepy and that is the primary way in which it relaxes you, in small quantities at least. And alcohol is also a depressant, so it dampens down your responses to stressful situations. This stress-response dampening varies between people, and in part depends on your expectations of what will happen when you drink. If you expect to relax, you’ll find alcohol relaxing. If you expect to party, alcohol will energise you. So there’s also a strong placebo effect in play when you drink, and even just the smell of alcohol can be relaxing. But alcohol’s sedative and depressant qualities do contribute to drinking feeling relaxing.
But over time, as your tolerance for alcohol increases, these relaxing effects diminish. The glass of wine you had to relax at the end of the day might turn into two or three glasses that don’t have quite the same relaxing effect. And if your drinking creeps up over time, you may find that alcohol actually adds to your overall stress levels. Over a long period, drinking alcohol increases levels of cortisol in your body, which you might feel as stress. And wrestling with your habits can be stressful if drinking begins to have a negative impact on your life. Long-term drinking is a potent stressor.
Even if you recognise that alcohol has stopped working for you, and you want to learn to relax without drinking, you may face a bigger challenge. Just like drinking and socialising can become synonymous in your mind, so might drinking and relaxing. You may question whether it’s even possible to relax without drinking. But remember that relaxation is about much more than alcohol consumption.
The science of relaxation
Let’s dive into the subject of relaxation itself.
What does relaxation mean? One dictionary definition is “the state of being free from tension and anxiety.” That definition points at an interesting idea, that relaxation is as much about what you feel in your body (freedom from tension) as what you feel in your mind (freedom from anxiety). A truly relaxed state is one that encompasses your whole being, your body and your mind.
Rosemary Payne (who died in 2015) was a physiotherapist who dedicated her retirement to the study of relaxation. Her book, Payne’s Handbook of Relaxation Techniques, was first published in 1995 and is now the gold-standard textbook for teaching relaxation techniques to healthcare professionals. In it, she distinguishes between somatic and cognitive approaches to relaxation. Somatic approaches are relaxation techniques that relax your body, such as breathing techniques, progressive muscular relaxation, stretching and exercise. Cognitive approaches are those that relax your mind, including self-awareness, visualisation and meditation.
Payne’s focus in her book was to gather techniques that were easy to learn. And she was absolutely rigorous in only recommending relaxation approaches that were supported by clinical evidence. She distinguished between brief relaxation, techniques that could produce immediate effects and which could be used in a stressful situation like deep breathing, and deep relaxation, approaches that induced a whole-body relaxation effect best achieved by lying down. She explored techniques that were directly relaxing, like muscular tension and release, as well as activities that were indirectly relaxing, such as the Alexander technique.
But most importantly, she highlighted the need to practise relaxation. “Practising the technique is essential,” she wrote. “Greater practice leads to more effective results.”
This is useful to bear in mind as you approach the subject of how to relax without drinking. A single relaxation technique might not be as effective as a collection of approaches that encompass your whole being. And you may need to practise relaxing too. Just because you didn’t find deep breathing relaxing the first time you did it, that’s no reason to give it up completely.
You spent a long time practising how to relax with alcohol. You are likely to need to experiment and practise if you want to relax without drinking too.
101 ways to relax without drinking
So if you want to relax without drinking, it’s good to have options. Even if you are someone who wants to drink in moderation, don’t let alcohol be your only way to relax. And if you are quitting alcohol for good, you will definitely need some new approaches to relaxation.
I recently asked Club Soda members how they relax. This is what works for them, and this list might spark some ideas for you about how you can relax too. Here are 101 ways to relax without drinking.
- Accepting that you are an introvert
- Appreciating what you have
- Being content with yourself
- Browsing in a good bookshop
- Caring for your houseplants
- Chatting with friends
- Cleaning out your cupboards
- Collecting beautiful glassware
- Cooking dinner
- Crocheting something
- Dancing alone in your house
- Deadheading flowers
- Dimming the lights
- Doing a jigsaw
- Drinking a bottle of alcohol-free beer
- Drinking a tonic with lemon and ice
- Drinking camomile tea
- Drinking hot chocolate
- Drinking licorice tea
- Eating slowly
- Enjoying mindless games on your phone
- Enjoying snuggle time with your dog
- Enjoying tea and cake
- Exercising gently
- Exercising hard
- Geeking out over sci-fi
- Getting a massage
- Getting a puppy
- Going clubbing
- Going for a bike ride
- Going for a hike
- Going for a run
- Going for a swim
- Going for a walk
- Going to a spin class
- Going to bed early
- Going to the gym
- Grooming your dog
- Having a bath
- Having a long soak in Epsom salts
- Hugging your cat
- Learning to love nature’s silence
- Letting go of expectations
- Letting go of guilt
- Lifting weights
- Lighting a candle
- Listening to guided meditation
- Listening to music
- Listening to podcasts
- Listening to the wind in the leaves
- Lying down and closing your eyes for half an hour
- Lying in bed imagining the nice things you can do now you’re not drinking
- Lying on the bed without people in the house
- Making a quilt
- Making clothes
- Moving each day
- Organising your wardrobe
- Painting to music
- Playing online board games
- Playing quiet music in the background
- Playing the flute
- Playing with the kids
- Practising progressive muscle relaxation
- Practising gentle restorative yoga
- Putting your legs up the wall for 10 minutes
- Ranting in your journal
- Reading a good book
- Reading a magazine
- Reading autobiographies
- Reading fiction
- Reading for half an hour before you turn the light off
- Reading in bed
- Reading philosophy
- Saying thank you for your blessings
- Scrolling through Tiktok
- Sitting in a comfy chair
- Sitting in the garden
- Sitting under a blanket
- Spending time by the sea
- Spending time in silence
- Spending time in the desert
- Spending time in the hills
- Spending time in the woods
- Staying at home
- Studying genealogy
- Taking afternoon naps
- Tidying up the garden
- Tuning into your body’s needs
- Tuning out the ugly world and escaping with your imagination
- Turning off the tv
- Turning off your phone off at 9pm each night
- Visiting a vintage shop
- Walking on the beach
- Walking to work and back
- Walking with music on
- Watching a box set
- Watching a movie
- Watching comedy clips
- Working out on the heavybag in the gym
- Writing in your journal
- Writing poetry
If you find another way to relax, do whatever works for you. Remember to practise relaxing, focusing on your body and your mind. And if you need support with changing your drinking, consider one of Club Soda’s courses.