Whether it’s to see in the weekend or to unwind after work, a couple of drinks at the end of a hard day is the norm for many of us. Alcohol is very much part and parcel of a night out and, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, the slippery slope where a glass or two transitions into a bottle or more can easily become a routine occurrence. Switching onto autopilot when it comes to alcohol is common and can throw mind, body and budget out of balance. However, a new mindful drinking movement that’s picking up pace looks set to turn age-old drinking habits on their head.
With the proportion of teetotallers aged 16 to 24 having risen from 18.7 to 20.9 per cent since 2006 according to The Office of National Statistics, the trend’s found particular popularity among millennials. From cutting back periodically to complete alcohol abstinence, there are varying degrees, but the common threads are an interest to embrace sobriety in one form or another and a thirst to question not just how much we drink, but why.
The current wellness boom seems to have played a pivotal role for its rise across the age groups. “There’s a greater sense of awareness about how alcohol impacts your health so people are being a bit more picky about where, when and how they drink, with many choosing to go alcohol-free,” says Laura Willoughby, founder of Club Soda , a network that helps champion the mindful drinking movement. “After all, if you could buy a pill that helped you sleep better, lose weight, increase energy and improve productivity, then you would pay a lot for it. Reducing how much alcohol you drink does all of that and saves you money.”
Motivations for wanting to be more mindful differ from person to person. “In amongst the trend are lots of different reasons and behaviours,” says Laura. “From people who have decided at an early age that drinking too much is just not part of who they are to baby boomers who have come from a heavy drinking generation and need some support to reform their drinking habits, our members come from the full spectrum. Regardless of their motivation, they are all looking for something interesting to drink.”
Sources of support and information for the ‘sober curious’ (the term given to those questioning their relationship with alcohol) have historically been sparse. However, mindful drinking events are starting to pop up around the country and are likely to increase in number. In fact, Club Soda hosted Britain’s first mindful drinking festival in 2017, and there was also the return of High Sobriety at the COMO Metropolitan London. Hosted by journalist and author of Material Girl, Mystical World , Ruby Warrington, it aims to provide ideas and inspiration for those wanting to live a more sober life. She too counts the disparity between our drinking habits and the rise of wellness-conscious lifestyles as a key factor behind the increase in the movement’s following. “I think it’s a natural extension of the wellness revolution since there becomes a huge disconnect between cleaning up your diet and taking up regular yoga and meditation for example, and then downing a bottle of wine on Friday night (or every night, even),” she says. “On a larger scale, we’re also living in times of rapid, unprecedented change, which can feel anything from exhilarating to unsettling and downright terrifying, depending on the level of your hangover. Having a clear head is a way to feel grounded and confident in the choices you’re making.”
Why become a mindful drinker?
Ruby’s reasons for wanting to host the events were fuelled by her own experiences. “I decided about six years ago that I wanted to change my drinking habits and immediately realised it was going to be much harder than I’d hoped due both to my own habitual use of alcohol, and the fact that it was often just expected that I would drink, and so I did!” she says. “After four years of conscious effort, I’d cut back considerably, but there were still some situations where I found it very hard not to drink and I was still obsessing about alcohol internally. At this point I decided to try AA, but the program and the teachings didn’t resonate with me. I do not identify with the label ‘alcoholic.’ But I did appreciate the opportunity to talk openly about my journey with alcohol and realised I likely wasn’t alone in my experience.”
For Laura, stopping altogether was the key that helped her achieve a healthier mind and body. “I drank too much - that is the long and short of it and it impacted on my mental health, my energy and my weight,” she tells us. “My off button broke when I was about 35. I did not drink every day but when I did, I found it hard to stop. I was using alcohol as a coping tool and I knew I was harming myself. All of that just had to stop. I am so glad I did. I have gained so much which makes it easier to stay alcohol-free.”
For others, the short-lived highs of binge drinking weren't worth the long-term lows. “I don't like the feeling of being drunk,” says personal trainer and High Sobriety speaker, Shona Vertue. “I may have the odd glass of wine at a dinner party once per month and even then, I really struggle to finish it. However, that's not to say that I have never been drunk - I just personally feel that the pain of the hangover is never worth the transient, illusionary 'bliss' of intoxication.” She adds, “I think as a society we are moving towards mindfulness in many areas of life, so it was only natural for people to question drinking and sobriety. Alcohol is a depressant - it makes our brains slow - how can we be mindful and drunk at the same time. It's a total oxymoron.”
From a fitness perspective, the concept of being mindful has aided personal trainer and author of the 2-Meal Day , Max Lowry in helping his clients find balance between wellness aims and social life. “I teach my clients to be mindful during their workouts and it is a big factor in forming positive drinking habits,” he says. On a personal level, he's found that cutting back on his own intake has given him the opportunity to recalibrate his relationship with drinking. “My attitude and behaviours towards alcohol have completely transformed,” he says. “I now drink for positive reasons - because I enjoy the taste of beer and I am happy. Not because of social anxiety, work pressure or an apathetic mood towards life. I rarely get drunk, I have one or two bottles of beer once, maybe twice per week. Before, I would binge drink four to five nights per week.”
A recent study published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology has also demonstrated the value of mindfulness techniques as a tool in helping frequent drinkers cut back on their consumption. Participants who drank on average around two and a half bottles of wine a week or one and a half pints a day (26 units approximately), saw their intake reduced by more than a third (down to 9.3 units) after receiving relatively small amounts of mindfulness training. Those who took part were told to pay attention to their feelings and bodily sensations and see their urges to drink as ‘temporary events’. They were played a tape that told them that their ‘feelings can be accepted and tolerated, rather than acted upon’ and asked to practise the techniques they learned for 15 minutes a day for a week after the training. Interestingly also, the mindfulness group saw significantly bigger benefits compared to the group that were just given relaxation techniques to help them feel calmer and more in control of the situation.
How can you satisfy your ‘sober curiosity?'
For those interested in finding out more about whether mindful drinking is for them or not, there are far more options available nowadays then there were a decade ago. High Sobriety’s second event on the 7th of September for instance, provides an opportunity to find out more. As well as covering sober curiosity, the debate and Q&A will feature insight on how to be a healthy hedonist and the art of sober socialising among other subjects. Discussion plays a big part as is having a support network. “Having a community of people on the same path is essential as it’s so easy to get sucked back into drinking if all the people you’re around are on that tip,” says Ruby. “So often, we drink to fit in.”
From a day to day perspective, what can you do to reduce your alcohol intake? For both Shona and Max, a useful tip is to think about the quality of what you’re drinking over the quantity. “Find an alcoholic drink that you genuinely like (I find spending more money helps!),” says Max. “Sip it slowly and savour the flavours. This one completely changed the way I drink; I learned to appreciate alcohol, rather than use it as a means to an end.” He also advises upping your quota of H20. “Get into the habit of drinking one glass of water for every alcoholic drink,” he says. “Not only will it sober you up, but you will be so thankful for it the next day! You may even realise that you don’t want alcohol, but just want the feeling of a drink in your hand. I now often use soda water and fresh lime juice as a non-alcoholic alternative.” Another useful tip? Avoid shots at all cost. “This was another game changer for me,” he tells us. “I was able to stay in control just drinking beer or wine, but as soon as shots entered the equation, that was the end of it.”
For Laura, challenging her preconceptions of drinking and thinking about what was best for her were intergral parts of her journey to a healthier relationship with alcohol. “Being able to reframe changing my drinking as a positive action that allows me to gain mental wellbeing and improve my health was the really important revelation for me,” she says. “We have been stuck with outdated negative language about drinking for so long - it always suggests alcohol is something you are missing or have to continually resist. It is not helpful for everyone and contradicted my strong political ethics. It did not represent the freedom I felt from recognising that alcohol is just not something I want. Our members, we have over 10,000, also talk about how they are strong role models for each other. Seeing people like you enjoying life without alcohol is very powerful. It shows you that life with less alcohol in it is not only possible but also desirable.”
With more help now available for those looking to reduce their alcohol intake, things look promising, but there are still areas for improvement. “There still needs to be a lot more support for people who need to switch from a heavy drinking habit to drinking less or going alcohol-free,” says Laura. “From the social pressure through to associating alcohol with strong emotions, there’s lots of psychological hardwiring to unpick. There needs to be a variety of options, after all, who you get sober with is just as important as who you went to the pub with," she adds. "There is no one size fits all. We can get you going on your journey though and help point you in the direction of services, blogs and other support that can get you to where you want to be.”