Moderation: Could it help you change your drinking?
Dru Jaeger is one of Club Soda’s co-founders and the author of How to Be a Mindful Drinker. In this week’s blog, Dru considers moderation and whether it could help you change your relationship with alcohol.
In Club Soda, we’ve always been clear that if you want to change your drinking, sobriety isn’t the only option. Although many of our members do decide that going alcohol-free is the best choice for them, there are plenty of us who moderate our drinking – including me. You’ll find lots of sober-only communities around the internet, but we’re not one of them. Club Soda is a place where everyone is welcome, and we’re committed to helping you change your drinking, your way.
The decision about moderating or going alcohol-free can feel like a big one, especially if you are just beginning to think about your drinking. The idea of becoming alcohol-free can be daunting, so you might be wondering if moderation is an easier route to change. Maybe moderation might mean you don’t have to change much at all. On the other hand, you might have heard stories from people who’ve tried and failed at moderating before they decided to quit drinking completely. You might have been told, in no uncertain terms, that moderation just doesn’t work.
With all those stories and perspectives floating around inside your head, the decision about how to change your drinking can quickly get complicated. And that can hold you back from doing anything at all. It’s an easy place to get stuck.
I hope this blog helps you get unstuck, so you can think more clearly about what might work for you. It’s not a foolproof guide to what will definitely work – almost everyone who successfully changes their drinking experiments with some different approaches along the way. But it should give you some helpful pointers, so at least you start your journey heading in the right direction. Let’s explore:
- The evidence for moderation
- How paying attention to your drinking can give you clues about how to change
- Some top tips for developing a moderation mindset
The evidence for moderation
For most of us, the most compelling evidence is a personal story. So here’s a bit of mine.
For all sorts of reasons, drinking wasn’t a big part of my life until I hit my 30s. But then, with a bit of money to spend, I made up for lost time and had a lot of fun. Some of those years are a bit of a blur and, honestly, there are some times that I don’t really remember at all.
Even so, in all those years, I never thought much about drinking. Looking back, I feel lucky that my drinking never became compulsive, but it was definitely absent-minded and always opportunistic. If there was a chance to have a good time, I’d take it. Sometimes drinking was great. But sometimes it went very badly wrong, like the time I broke my elbow and discovered that two bottles of pinot grigio and ice skating don’t mix.
For me, learning to moderate has been a process. I understand now how to moderate my drinking in a way that works for me. My test for this simple: am I paying attention to what I’m drinking, and am I waking up feeling good the next day? Right now, I’m passing that test with flying colours, largely because I’ve figured out what role I want alcohol to have in my life. I drink little and rarely. I drink alcohol-free and low-alcohol beer, I enjoy wine with friends over dinner, and I have an occasional nightcap.
That’s what my moderation looks like. It works for me.
Studies of moderation
Stories are fine, but what about studies? There are have surprisingly few longitudinal studies of people’s drinking habits. But one, in particular, gives us useful evidence that moderation might be an option, even for long-term heavy drinkers. The Birmingham Untreated Heavy Drinkers project [external PDF] followed 259 people for ten years. All of them were heavy and frequent drinkers – the researchers deliberately recruited people who described themselves as “drinking like a fish”. The researchers didn’t offer them treatment or support. They just checked in every couple of years to see how things were going.
There’s a common story about having a drinking problem, that it is an incurable disease that will only get worse with time. Unsurprisingly, the study found that over the ten years of the research project, lots of people didn’t change much, and some were drinking a lot more heavily. But the researchers in Birmingham found something remarkable: after ten years, 28 of people who’d been drinking heavily a decade before weren’t drinking at all. And 53 were drinking within the government’s safer drinking guidelines.
Moderators outnumbered people who’d quit drinking by almost 2-to-1.
Paying attention to your drinking
Before you decide how to change, pay attention to the patterns of your drinking. Notice if there are places you go where you end up drinking more than you want to, or if problem drinking happens at particular times. Does drinking with certain people always get you in trouble? Or are some drinks more of an issue than others?
Everything you learn by paying attention to your drinking can help you as you moderate. There are lots of different approaches to moderating, but all of them require clear plans. Everything you notice will help make those plans more effective.
Pay attention to your limits too. Your sense of how much is too much, and your ability to stop before you reach that point, can change in different circumstances. Your body takes time to process the alcohol you drink and you don’t feel its effects instantly. So drinking fast makes moderation more difficult. Ask yourself honestly: can you slow down?
As you pay attention, you’ll also begin to notice your ability to call a halt to your drinking. This will have a big impact on how you choose to change. Ask yourself honestly: if you start, can you stop?
Struggling to slow down or stop doesn’t mean that moderation is impossible, but it might make changing your drinking harder than it needs to be. Ultimately, changing your drinking doesn’t have to be a struggle. If your approach – whether it’s moderating or being alcohol-free – isn’t working for you, change it. It’s OK to experiment and try something new.
Top tips for a moderation mindset
While my personal approach to moderating has been evolving over the last couple of years, so has my thinking about moderation. I’ve noticed a big change in my mindset in the last year. Here are my top tips for a moderation mindset:
- Rethink the norm: Rather than considering drinking as the normal thing to do – and therefore that I’m “cutting down” my consumption and depriving myself of something – I’ve started deciding consciously to include alcohol in my life. Because I know (I mean, really know) that drinking alcohol is never compulsory, I’ve reclaimed the power to choose. I’ll only drink alcohol if it supports me to live my life well.
- Be open to change: It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but as I’ve reduced the amount of alcohol I drink, my tolerance has pretty much disappeared. I used to say two pints of beer was my limit. Now I might manage one. Changing my drinking has changed me, and I’ve realised I need to stay open to change. I keep my plans under review and I’m always ready to adjust my approach.
- You’re free to get it wrong: I’ve realised I was putting myself under a lot of pressure to always get moderating right. That’s in part because of my position in Club Soda: I feel a responsibility to be a role model. But perfectionism can get in the way of living life. It’s OK to get things wrong, even if that means waking up with a hangover. But it’s vital to learn from that experience.
- Make decisions just for now: Forever decisions scare me. But most decisions don’t need to be made once and for all time. Right now, I’m happy moderating, but I’m open to the possibility that I might change. It feels important to give myself permission to try new things. And doing that helps me focus on what’s within my control today.
Final thoughts on moderation
I can’t tell you whether moderation will definitely work for you. But I can tell you that moderation is possible, even for long-term heavy drinkers. Paying attention to your drinking will help you make an honest assessment of whether moderation could work for you. And adopting a moderation mindset will help you stay open to the possibilities of change.
Club Soda’s courses about mindful drinking teach you the skills you need to moderate your drinking. In the end, the best way to know if moderation will work for you is to try it.
PS Over the coming months, I’m planning to write more about moderation, especially about the practical tactics. So I’d love to hear your stories. If you’re successfully moderating your drinking, what’s your approach? What works for you? And what role does alcohol play in your life? If you want to chat, get in touch.