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Trying Dry January? Some Helpful Tips from a CBT Therapist

The start of a New Year ushers in the promise of changed habits, new beginnings, and firm resolutions. Many people set resolutions and goals for January 1st, only to find their motivation waxing and waning in the first few weeks. Pop psychology states that it takes three weeks to build a new habit. So, with it being the 21st day of the month, let’s explore Dry January and what might be happening at this point.


What is Dry January?

Dry January started in 2006, with John Ore coining the term and expressing the value in spending the first month of every year alcohol-free. Since then, it has steadily gained support. People who complete the “challenge” often find they save money, lose weight, become more engaged in life, and sleep better. A study in The Lancet in 2018, revealed several eye-opening findings; across the globe, alcohol is the seventh leading risk factor associated with deaths and disability-adjusted life years (DALY; GBD 2016 Alcohol Collaborators, 2018). It accounts for 2.2% of female deaths and 6-8% of male deaths per year.

One finding? If you want to decrease your risk of health problems by cutting down your drinking, you’d be best off having zero drinks per day. This is a far cry from the weekly averages expressed for males and females in Canada. The low-risk drinking guidelines in Canada state men and women should have no more than 15 and 10 drinks per week, respectively (Government of Canada, 2021).

Pop psychology has also helped a myth circulate that red wine is good for your health: but these studies were recently called into question due to problems in the methods of the research. It turns out that no amount of alcohol may be good.


How would CBT help me stay dry?

As a CBT therapist, I focus on understanding a person’s experience of alcohol and how it’s helpful for them. I also look at how the context of a person’s life alters their ability to cope. When we look at alcohol use and relapse factors, there are a number of high-risk scenarios that increase the likelihood of relapse. A high risk situation is any emotion, experience, setting, thought, or context that increases the risk of someone re-engaging with a behaviour they are trying to limit. Let’s go through a few.

Discomfort, Negative Emotions and Relapse

Studies have found that negative affect is the main predictor of relapse behaviour. Negative affect can be anything from anger and frustration, to sadness or anxiety. You might find that you are more likely to want a drink when something emotionally arousing happens. When you are in this heightened state and feel like you don’t have the tools to cope, a relapse is more likely. Being able to sit through discomfort and naturally let the experience come and go, without reaching for a drink or drug, is a skill that gets easier over time. At the beginning, it may feel impossible. When you ride the craving out…well, I won’t ruin the learning for you.

Expectations Matter

When we expect alcohol to do what it has always done for us, the risk for relapse is greater. Anticipating and remembering what alcohol feels like and what you expect from it can be either helpful or harmful in staying on the Dry January wagon. People who expect alcohol to feel good and think it is helpful in their life are more likely to relapse, compared to someone who has negative expectations about how alcohol might help. In essence, your thoughts about alcohol influence your ability to stick through January.


A Seemingly Ordinary Event

It’s your father’s birthday, and over a Zoom call, everyone wishes dad a happy birthday and has a toast. Your spouse hands you a glass of wine and you take a sip, before you realize what has happened. What now? The Abstinence-violation effect is the feeling of failure following a breach of your “rule.” Does this mean the challenge has been a failure and you can start drinking normally again? Or is this a simple lapse that you can move away from. So, your attributions about a violation of the rule make a difference.


Tips to help you get through it

Here are some tools to use during the last push of Dry January:

  1. Identify your triggers and high-risk situations. Write them down.
  2. Renew your commitment: tell a friend, talk about your reasons for trying this challenge or write a list.
  3. View lapses as a single event: pay attention to the circumstances and context involved in the lapse, instead of blaming yourself.
  4. Have an emergency plan when thoughts and feelings become overwhelming: calling a trusted friend, or a hotline.


In  Summary… 

Relapse and lapses happen. That’s why alcohol addiction is perhaps best described as a relapsing brain disorder. On the spectrum of addictive behaviour, everyone has a place. You might be more of a social drinker who binges with your friends on the weekend. You might be a daily drinker who just wants a change of pace. Regardless, these high risk situations can impact your ability to meet your goal. Becoming aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in high-risk settings is the first step in realizing you have agency and an ability to choose.


About the author 

Victoria Howarth is one of our qualifying registered psychotherapists {RP (Q)} and a therapist under supervision at CMAP Health. She is completing the last year of her Master’s Degree in Counselling Psychology at Yorkville University. Victoria holds a Master’s Certificate in Addictions and Mental Health from Durham College and has spent the last 5 years working the frontlines of the opioid epidemic. She has experience coaching and counselling adults with substance use disorders with an emphasis on harm reduction.

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