Omicron and ‘Dry January’: Tips on How to Succeed During the Surge

Adopting new daily habits is one of the tips for having an alcohol-free Dry January. Getty Images
  • Dry January is a program started almost a decade ago in the United Kingdom. Participants agree to abstain from alcohol during the first month of the new year.
  • Experts say that they expect a record number of people in the United States to attempt to “go dry” this month due to the increase in alcohol use during COVID-19 restrictions in 2021.
  • Experts say that decreasing or eliminating alcohol intake provides physical as well as mental health benefits.
  • Tips for a successful Dry January include introducing new daily habits, avoiding alcohol triggers, and learning how to effectively decline an offer of a drink.

This year in the United Kingdom, 1 in 6 adults who drink alcohol are planning to participate in “Dry January,” a program first started there in 2013.

That amounts to nearly 8 million adults and an increase of 22 percent compared to January 2021, according to Alcohol Change UK, the leading alcohol-related charity that founded the Dry January program.

Experts expect a similar increase in people in the United States.

They note that there was a significant increase in people using alcohol in 2021 to cope with pandemic stress and that may be why more people than ever are considering an alcohol-free January.

Pandemic trauma linked to increased drinking

“Following the holiday season filled with creative cocktails, champagne toasts, and lots of festive parties, many individuals may be considering giving their bodies and brains a break from all the libations,” said Niloufar Nekou, clinical director and licensed marriage and family therapist at Alter Health Group, a mental health facility in Dana Point, California.

“With restrictions being reimposed daily across the country to address Omicron, we may see an increase in individuals choosing to participate in Dry January 2022,” she told Healthline. 

“We have all experienced trauma in navigating COVID-19,” added Jen Bryan, a recovery coach and sobriety expert with the Tempest, an online alcohol recovery and support system program. 

People who are home with limited interaction and high levels of stress during the pandemic may turn to alcohol to temporarily numb these stresses, but it does not solve the greater issue, Bryan told Healthline.

“Alcohol is an affordable, accessible, and socially acceptable way to relieve stress and can provide immediate relief from stress by relaxing the central nervous system and increasing dopamine production in the brain,” said Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery in Texas. 

Kennedy told Healthline that we’re all experiencing limitations placed on our ability to regulate our stress, loneliness, and boredom through social contact.

However, she explains, alcohol misuse has negative consequences for physical and mental health when used more frequently and for longer periods of time. Overuse can lead to developing a tolerance and ultimately worsening anxiety and depression. 

“The fact that searches have increased for Dry January, the experiment of taking a break from alcohol for the month, suggests a desire to change how we are dealing with stress and get healthier,” Kennedy said.

“As we take on new goals in 2022, it makes perfect sense that more people than ever are thinking about the potential benefits of abstinence from alcohol.” 

About 1 in 4 Americans reported drinking more in 2021 to manage their stress, according to self-reported data collected by the American Psychological Association

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has also reported an emerging trend of “high intensity drinking,” or an increase in binge drinking. High intensity drinking is when people consume twice (or more) of what’s advisable based on safe drinking guidelines for men and women.

Experts also warn that women’s relationship to alcohol has changed the most and it’s not for the better. A study by the RAND Corporation found women in particular had increased their heavier drinking days by 41 percent. 

Benefits of a Dry January 

Bryan, whose own sobriety began with a Dry January, explains that not drinking is a tool that she uses to access a happy life. 

Her secret for staying sober comes down to community.

“I sought out peers to walk me through. By engaging with them, I continue to pick up tips, tricks, and life hacks to add to my toolkit,” she said.

During her first Dry January, Bryan said that she found it helpful to schedule the day and she made sure to implement little bits of self-care throughout. 

Without a hangover, she said it became easy to wake up in the morning and meditate. Around her work day, she scheduled walks, tried cooking, became a yoga studio regular (even on Zoom), and attended recovery group calls, as well as gave herself permission to go to bed early.

“Those who decide to take part in Dry January 2022 will likely see improvements in their physical and mental health including better-quality sleep, increased energy, healthier skin, weight loss, improved stress management, decreased anxiety and enhanced relationships,” said Nekou.

Tips for succeeding with Dry January

If you’re considering an alcohol-free January or need some suggestions on how to make it through the entire month, here’s what experts advise.

Start new habits

Kennedy recommends replacing old habits with activities that you can incorporate into your daily life after January has come and gone. 

“Substituting your drinking habit with a healthy alternative might be the kick you need to move out of the rut that was 2021,” she said. “You might even find a new spin on an old favorite.”

For example, if you love yoga, try goat yoga or online yoga.

“Trying new alternatives keeps the mind flexible and energized,” Kennedy said.

“Perhaps find a park or other outdoor venue to gather, discover new hobbies or activities, and invite others to join you,” suggested Nekou.

Journal about the benefits

Kennedy suggests keeping a journal to record your experience.

“Pay attention to how you feel when you abstain from alcohol and enjoy it,” said Kennedy. 

Questions to ask yourself include: 

  • Are you sleeping better? 
  • Are you able to think more clearly? 
  • Are you making better decisions? 

“Give yourself kudos and encouragement when you move in the right direction. You may notice more mental clarity, improved sleep hygiene, better appetite, increased energy, and decreased restlessness, just to name a few,” Kennedy said.

However, you may not feel the full benefits of abstinence in just 1 month.

In this case, Kennedy said to consider applying the changes you’ve made for another month and continue to re-evaluate.

“You may want to extend your sobriety indefinitely if the positives outweigh the negatives,” she said.

Stay social 

Even while practicing physical distancing, there are ways to take advantage of social support during Dry January, explained Kennedy. 

“Consider sharing your progress on social media with other Dry January participants or joining an online forum to help encourage you and keep your confidence up,” she suggested.

“In addition, there are virtual Alcoholics Anonymous meetings available 24/7 if you are struggling to stay sober for the full 30 days.”

If you struggle to socialize without a drink in hand, Nekou suggests to still try to keep the same social calendar you had prior to January and try your best not to isolate despite all the pandemic restrictions. 

Avoid triggering situations

You might also want to consider getting rid of any alcohol in your house to limit temptation, suggests Nekou.

And if you find yourself home alone often, Kennedy suggests making a different plan or strategy to reduce the impact of loneliness.

Any practice that changes your state of mind and reduces boredom may help, she explains.

Practice boundaries

It’s also helpful to practice your refusal skills in social situations where others are drinking, says Kennedy.

“If ‘I’m not drinking right now’ doesn’t cut it, consider removing yourself from situations where you feel pressure to drink,” she said.

“Remember that ‘no’ is a complete sentence,” added Bryan. “When someone offers a drink, I generally say, ‘No, thank you,’ without an explanation. In social situations, always keep a non-alcoholic drink in hand, and if you need to leave, just leave.”

Have a plan if you slip up

It’s important to be open with friends and family about your intention to try Dry January.

Kennedy recommends putting it out there ahead of time as an extra accountability measure. 

“If you do slip, reach out to a trusted friend for support,” she said. “Talk to someone who will keep you accountable to get back on track in a nonjudgmental way.”

Nekou suggests enlisting a sober buddy for accountability.

Whatever you do, don’t give up if you slip up, she adds. 

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