Today, I want to talk about something that’s not related to hiking training per se. But it’s a very important part of health that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough! So let’s get really honest about how to drink less alcohol — or quit alcohol altogether, if that’s what you want.
I’ve talked a lot on my YouTube channel about how I cut my drinking way back this year after 10 years of overdrinking (3–4 drinks most days). This happened after several years of trying every behavior change mind hack in the book and failing — and then beating myself up for it.
I’m happy to report that since January 1, I’ve cut back to just a few drinks a week, and I feel great. It’s amazing to wake up every morning with a clear head and an energized mind. While feeling all of my feelings isn’t always fun, it has motivated me to make better choices about how I spend my time and with whom.
The skills I learned on this journey have also helped me to change other behaviors like overeating and overworking.
So today I’ll share what didn’t work for me and what did (after some practice).
Many of these tips from from Brooke Castillo at The Life Coach School. If you want to drink less alcohol, I highly recommend listening to her podcast series on How to Stop Overdrinking. It’s magic stuff.
Should you really try to stop drinking alcohol on your own?
First, I definitely don’t want to suggest that what worked for me will work for everyone.
Some people will need help to stop drinking, whether that’s a professional counselor, support group, or a residential program. That is totally OK and not a sign of weakness. Every person, brain, physiology, and situation is different, so don’t be afraid to get help if you need it.
However, I think our society does us a disservice by not talking more openly about overdrinking and the options we have to change it. According to many websites, the only way to stop overdrinking is to admit you are an alcoholic and stop drinking forever.
But this flies in the face of common sense. Many of us know people who used to drink a lot, but who later cut back or stopped on their own. (My dad was one, so I absolutely know it’s possible.)
In my opinion, talking honestly about overdrinking — and admitting that it’s something many people can change — would take away a lot of the anxiety around this issue. And it would almost certainly help more people to succeed at cutting down or quitting.
Drinking less: What didn’t work for me
About two years ago, I realized that I really wanted to drink less (though not quit completely). There were a few reasons for this.
- As I was getting older (especially after 40), my body was getting worse at handling alcohol. Just a few years ago, having two drinks wouldn’t have affected me much. But now I was waking up feeling tired and hung over after two drinks.
- I realized I was spending a lot of time planning my life around drinking. Specifically, I was eating less and exercising more to make room for the extra alcohol calories. I used MyFitnessPal obsessively to squeeze the extra food calories out of my diet to make room for wine!
- I had started a business that was all about teaching people to live healthier lives, but I wasn’t following my own advice about behavior change. This didn’t seem fair to my readers and customers.
- I was dating, and I didn’t want to make a bad impression by slamming down three drinks when meeting a new guy.
So I decided to change my behavior. And like everyone embarking on a big life change, I had many colossal failures and fell on my face over and over.
Here are some things that didn’t work:
My early attempts at drinking less involved “white-knuckling” it. I set daily and weekly limits on my number of drinks and resolved to meet those goals. I’m pretty goal-oriented, so I figured I’d be great at this game.
This worked for maybe a week or two. Then I would have a bad day at work or a terrible date and feel desperate for relief.
Because I didn’t know how to process negative emotions, I would numb them with alcohol. And because I’d been depriving myself, I’d feel justified in drinking extra alcohol.
My experience was typical. Research shows that humans only have finite reserves of willpower. So while it’s possible to resist something your brain desires for a little while, you can only hold out so long.
In order to give up something you desire that much, some deeper work needs to happen.
When raw willpower failed, I decided to get tough with myself. I told myself that I was weak, that I was out of control, and that I needed to get a grip.
I even downloaded an app that I could use to track my drinks. The app would send me ominious notifications and “yell” at me when I was exceeding my drinking limits!
This approach completely backfired. Feeling bad about myself actually made me want to drink more. It also made me feel less motivated to quit. Because if I was such a weak, bad person, why did it matter?
Drinking less: What finally worked!
After about two years of trying to cut down on drinking and never being able to do it for more than a week or two, I ran into Brooke’s podcast. Again, if you want to stop overdrinking, I absolutely recommend it! It’s life-changing stuff.
Brooke helped me understand the physiology of overdrinking and how the brain reacts to alcohol. I won’t get deep into it here, because it’s a huge subject. But knowing more about the science definitely took away some of the shame I was feeling around drinking. It also helped me believe I could change.
Armed with this knowledge, here’s what finally helped me stop overdrinking.
Changing my thinking
Our thoughts are very powerful and drive absolutely everything we feel and do. One mistake I was making was trying to change my behavior without changing my thoughts.
Once I changed my thinking, drinking less alcohol got a lot easier. Not effortless, but WAY easier.
How did I start? Here’s the exercise that changed everything for me. I do this exercise a lot when I’m chasing new business goals. And it totally worked for overdrinking too.
Now and Future Thinking
This exercise is all about talking to your future self. Now I know some of you just eye-rolled, but stay with me for a minute. Because it really works.
Start by drawing two columns on a piece of paper. Draw a little stick figure at the top of each column. One is now-you, one is future-you. (Yes, this sounded dumb to me the first time I did it. Do it anyway.)
Now-you has the problem you want to solve. Set a timer for 15 minutes and write down all of your thoughts about this problem.
Here’s my exact list for my overdrinking problem:
- I can’t stand to feel my feelings
- I deserve this
- I’ve had a hard day
- I can’t get through some parties or social events without alcohol
- Stopping won’t change anything
- Life is a struggle
- Thinking about drinking is draining me
- I wish I could sleep better
- I am tired of exercising hung over
- I hate my puffy dad bod
- I feel out of control
- I worry that I’m getting depressed
- I stress out about how my drinking looks to others
- I feel numb and empty
- My fiction writing feels stilted
- I feel old and hopeless
- I’m tired of everything
- I am a stranger to my body
- I have no confidence to help others when I can’t help myself.
Then take a moment to think about future-you. This is a version of you who has solved the problem and has also gotten the positive results you’re looking for. For the record, future me was looking hot, excited about life, and living part-time in Mexico.
Here are future-me’s thoughts on overdrinking (or not):
- Stopping drinking changes everything
- I lose weight easily
- I have more money
- I sleep well and dream for 8 hours
- I wake up refreshed
- I don’t worry about my weight
- I feel attractive
- I feel more confident in my work
- I don’t have to buy new clothes, because my weight doesn’t change
- I have confidence, because I know I can handle any emotion that comes along
- I feel fewer compulsions to overexercise
- My stomach is flat
- I never worry that others are judging me for overdrinking
- I don’t need false pleasures to get through life
- I am a much more feeling person who can write more feeling fiction
- I feel young and excited about life’s possibilities
- I love my body and treat it well
- I have the confidence and know-how to help others change
Just doing that exercise blew my mind. It helped me understand why I was having such a hard time drinking less.
Now-me was frustrated with many things drinking was bringing into my life, but I didn’t truly believe that stopping would make a difference. I also worried that I wouldn’t be able to deal with the feelings that came up when I wasn’t numbing myself with alcohol.
To really succeed at behavior change, I had to start thinking like future me. This obviously did not happen overnight! Because taking on all her thoughts right away was overwhelming, I focused on two:
- This changes everything
- I can handle any emotion that comes along
Which brings me to …
Getting comfortable with discomfort
A lot of us overdrink to get rid of the negative feelings. In fact, we spend a lot of time and energy avoiding negative emotion in general. We don’t accept that negative feelings are a normal and even healthy part of life.
If you are fake-happy from drinking too much, it can lead to you tolerating things you normally wouldn’t. If you have to drink to be in your relationship, maybe it’s time to question why you’re there. Same goes for a boring networking event you feel obligated to attend.
By contrast, when we allow the negative emotions to be there, they lose power over us. Our brains learn ways to process them and deal with them. Facing your negative emotions is really the only way to grow and change.
Planning to drink
If you listen to Brooke’s podcast, you’ll learn how drinking every time the urge hits your brain reinforces the behavior and strengthens your desire for alcohol. So how do you get around this without quitting drinking completely?
Brooke suggests planning every drink at least 24 hours ahead of time. For example,
“I’m going to have two drinks at the party tomorrow night.”
If you find yourself craving a drink you haven’t planned, decide that you will have it in 24 hours.
By planning your drinking and sticking to the plan, you will gradually extinguish the stimulus-response cycle, and the urge to drink will hit you less often and with less force.
What to expect
This approach is not a magic bullet. Changing your thinking takes time and practice. But once you dial in your new thinking patterns, stopping overdrinking can be surprisingly easy.
After many failures, everything finally clicked for me around January 1 of 2019. For the entire month, I didn’t drink at all unless I was out with friends and had planned to drink. (Funny, I didn’t even know what Dry January was at the time!)
I didn’t experience a lot of the strong negative emotions that some people feel when they cut back on drinking, but I did feel a lot of boredom and restlessness — especially at night. You might be surprised how much time you suddenly have to fill when you’re not drinking!
The urge to drink gradually diminished, but very slowly. By the end of January, it was still there, but maybe half of what it had been. Three months later, there are times that it completely goes away, but there are also occasional nights when I feel a strong urge to drink.
I also have to be careful after I drink for a few days on a row — for example, after a vacation. Afterward, there will often be an urge to continue drinking when I haven’t planned to. It’s very important to resist this and to take some non-drinking time to reset my brain!
When I convinced myself that everything would change if I stopped overdrinking, I was partly right! Here are some positive changes I’ve seen.
- My self-esteem and sense of confidence are amazing. I’ve been able to grow my business in ways I’d never imagined since I stopped drinking.
- I’m a better fitness coach. Because I helped myself, I know I can help others.
- I wake up every morning with a clear head.
- Drinking no longer feels as exciting or pleasurable as it once did, though I still enjoy a good IPA or cab.
- My feelings are deeper. I enjoy writing again and can also enjoy the emotions evoked by books and movies.
- I feel younger and more excited about the future.
- I’m way more tuned into my body and what it needs, which has led me to make some positive changes in my diet.
- I have an easier time saying no to activities I don’t enjoy.
- I can talk honestly with others about my overdrinking past and not feel shame. The responses have been fascinating!
What didn’t change
A few of the things I imagined about stopping overdrinking didn’t come true, which was interesting to me.
- I actually sleep a lot worse. It’s possible my drinking was masking a health condition like nocturnal hypoglycemia. I’m just starting to look into this.
- I didn’t lose much weight. But at the same time, I don’t live in fear that my weight is going to suddenly balloon out of control. I totally ditched the MyFitnessPal app, except for occasional checkups.
- I haven’t seen any big jumps in athletic performance, but I do feel better while I’m exercising.
- Most of all, I’m still the same person with the same insecurities and life challenges. I have new tools to deal with these, but I realize I’ll always be a work in progress.
So there you have ’em. My best tips to help you drink less alcohol — or quit drinking altogether.
They may not work for everyone, but I hope they can help someone out there.
Do you have tips or experiences to share? Comment below to join the conversation.
Originally published April 12, 2019.