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How can I relax without drinking alcohol?

By Posted in Ask Dru

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 members of Club Soda’s Facebook group 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.

  1. Accepting that you are an introvert
  2. Appreciating what you have
  3. Being content with yourself
  4. Browsing in a good bookshop
  5. Caring for your houseplants
  6. Chatting with friends
  7. Cleaning out your cupboards
  8. Collecting beautiful glassware
  9. Cooking dinner
  10. Crocheting something
  11. Dancing alone in your house
  12. Deadheading flowers
  13. Dimming the lights
  14. Doing a jigsaw
  15. Drinking a bottle of alcohol-free beer
  16. Drinking a tonic with lemon and ice
  17. Drinking camomile tea
  18. Drinking hot chocolate
  19. Drinking licorice tea
  20. Eating slowly
  21. Enjoying mindless games on your phone
  22. Enjoying snuggle time with your dog
  23. Enjoying tea and cake
  24. Exercising gently
  25. Exercising hard
  26. Geeking out over sci-fi
  27. Getting a massage
  28. Getting a puppy
  29. Going clubbing
  30. Going for a bike ride
  31. Going for a hike
  32. Going for a run
  33. Going for a swim
  34. Going for a walk
  35. Going to a spin class
  36. Going to bed early
  37. Going to the gym
  38. Grooming your dog
  39. Having a bath
  40. Having a long soak in Epsom salts
  41. Hugging your cat
  42. Learning to love nature’s silence
  43. Letting go of expectations
  44. Letting go of guilt
  45. Lifting weights
  46. Lighting a candle
  47. Listening to guided meditation
  48. Listening to music
  49. Listening to podcasts
  50. Listening to the wind in the leaves
  51. Lying down and closing your eyes for half an hour
  52. Lying in bed imagining the nice things you can do now you’re not drinking
  53. Lying on the bed without people in the house
  54. Making a quilt
  55. Making clothes
  56. Moving each day
  57. Organising your wardrobe
  58. Painting to music
  59. Playing online board games
  60. Playing quiet music in the background
  61. Playing the flute
  62. Playing with the kids
  63. Practising progressive muscle relaxation
  64. Practising gentle restorative yoga
  65. Putting your legs up the wall for 10 minutes
  66. Ranting in your journal
  67. Reading a good book
  68. Reading a magazine
  69. Reading autobiographies
  70. Reading fiction
  71. Reading for half an hour before you turn the light off
  72. Reading in bed
  73. Reading philosophy
  74. Saying thank you for your blessings
  75. Scrolling through Tiktok
  76. Sitting in a comfy chair
  77. Sitting in the garden
  78. Sitting under a blanket
  79. Spending time by the sea
  80. Spending time in silence
  81. Spending time in the desert
  82. Spending time in the hills
  83. Spending time in the woods
  84. Staying at home
  85. Studying genealogy
  86. Taking afternoon naps
  87. Tidying up the garden
  88. Tuning into your body’s needs
  89. Tuning out the ugly world and escaping with your imagination
  90. Turning off the tv
  91. Turning off your phone off at 9pm each night
  92. Visiting a vintage shop
  93. Walking on the beach
  94. Walking to work and back
  95. Walking with music on
  96. Watching a box set
  97. Watching a movie
  98. Watching comedy clips
  99. Working out on the heavybag in the gym
  100. Writing in your journal
  101. 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.

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