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Do You Really Have to Stop Drinking?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 12, 2021

If you have a problem with alcohol, you might have decided on your own that it’s time to stop drinking. Or maybe your doctor told you that it’s important for your liver -- and your body in general. Either way, you’re probably facing more struggles than just the physical act of avoiding alcohol.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) often stems from emotional or mental issues. So it’s natural to wonder -- or worry about -- whether you can enjoy or even handle life without a drink. You may also question whether you need to stop drinking completely.

Taking steps toward recovery means change: changing who you hang out with, where you go, or how you manage situations that used to make you turn to alcohol. Yes, it’s a big adjustment. But it’s also an opportunity to settle personal issues that led you to drink too much and to explore other ways to have fun and engage with others.

Is It Best to Abstain or Cut Back?

It’s a question that hasn’t fully been answered after decades of research. But one 2021 study has gotten us closer.

Researchers looked at two major studies on alcohol dependence and treatment. They found that even cutting back has benefits for people with AUD. They also concluded that more people might get help if they knew that total abstinence wasn’t their only option.

In fact, the FDA’s signs of AUD treatment success include no longer drinking as well as not having any heavy drinking days (with more than three drinks in a day for women or four for men).

To get the benefits, it helps to first figure out your current drinking level. A simple way to do this is to use the World Health Organization’s risk drinking levels, which are based on the amount of alcohol consumed per day:

  • Abstinence: None
  • Low risk: Up to 20 grams (g) for women, up to 40 g for men
  • Medium risk: 21-40 g for women, 41-60 g for men
  • High risk: 41-60 g for women, 61-100 g for men
  • Very high risk: Over 61 g for women or 101 g for men

A standard drink -- a shot of hard liquor alone or in a mixed drink, 12 ounces of beer, or a 5-ounce glass of wine -- has 14 grams of alcohol.

The 2021 study found that people who dropped even one or two levels had better mental health, quality of life, and functioning. More than three-quarters of people who chose cutting back over quitting were able to stick with it over 3 years. Those who had the highest boosts in social and physical quality of life were those who had the most severe AUD.

It’s still important to start a recovery journey with a doctor who can help you decide whether cutting back or quitting completely is better for you. They can also help you set an overall treatment plan that includes other important steps, like therapy and support groups.

Managing Change

Whether you quit or cut back, tools can make it easier to deal with emotions that may arise, like stress, anxiety, and the common fear that you may not be able to change.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) not only helps with all these feelings, it teaches you how to stop negative thoughts that can stand in your way and act as a trigger for relapse.

Another helpful tool is mind-body relaxation, the kind you get from activities like yoga, tai chi, and deep breathing.

It helps to face challenges head-on. If you drank to avoid work or personal issues, use your therapy sessions to deal with them and find productive solutions that will help you re-engage with co-workers or loved ones, even if it feels uncomfortable at first.

Healthy lifestyle habits are also a key part of recovery. Get more exercise (which will help you get better sleep) and eat a nutritious diet. A good diet can improve your energy levels and boost your sense of well-being.

Finding New Ways to Have Fun

Alcohol misuse trains your brain to connect positive feelings with alcohol. Cutting back or abstaining can make you wonder how to have fun without it.

To retrain your brain, try activities that will bring you true happiness. You may think it’s impossible at first, when you’re caught up in the “work” of recovery, like going to treatment sessions and meetings. Make time for new or renewed activities as part of the self-care that will help you in your recovery journey.

Try something new. Learn a craft or a language, or take up an enticing sport that can fulfill your need for thrills. As part of recovery, creative writing can help improve brain functions, like attention and concentration, that were affected by alcohol misuse. Joining a creative writing workshop and doing writing exercises and assignments can also be inspiring and joyful. And you can decide what you want the subject matter to be.

Plan get-togethers with family and friends. You probably lost touch with some people in your life when you were drinking more. Reconnect with them now, especially if they support the changes you’re making, and you’ll feel less alone.

Spend time in nature. You might enjoy going to a park or botanical garden, hiking, or visiting a zoo or aquarium. Or try your hand at gardening; watching things that you planted grow is uplifting.

Find ways to help others. Think beyond the people in your support group. Volunteering for an organization that has meaning to you will bring a sense of accomplishment. An animal shelter might be an ideal choice, because people often get as much from animals as they get from us.

At first, changes in your relationship with alcohol might seem scary or uncomfortable. But it’s an opportunity for personal growth and re-engaging with loved ones and the world around you.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Addiction Centers: “Redefining Fun in Recovery,” “Addiction as a Coping Mechanism and Healthy Alternatives.”

Journal of General Internal Medicine: “Stability of Drinking Reductions and Long-term Functioning Among Patients with Alcohol Use Disorder.”

Science Advances: “Advances in the science and treatment of alcohol use disorder.”

Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine: “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.”

FDA: “Alcoholism: Developing Drugs for Treatment.”

SurgeonGeneral.gov: “The Neurobiology of Substance Use, Misuse, and Addiction.”

Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly: “Can Creative Writing, as an Add-on to Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder, Support Rehabilitation?”

The South Suburban Council: “Having Fun in Recovery.”

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