Many of us default to alcohol as a way to manage emotions. If we’re stressed, struggling to decompress after work, fighting with our partner, or just celebrating, relaxing, or socializing, we often keep alcohol close at hand.
From time to time, we may also ask ourselves, “Am I drinking too much?” Perhaps we noticed our drinking increase during the pandemic in response to boredom, loneliness, or the absence of the usual guardrails.
Maybe we question whether those nightly two glasses of wine are good for us, even as social media is ablaze with hashtags affirming that #momneedswine. (These messages disguise the fact that most mothers really need more human support.)
As a sobriety coach and educator, I believe questions such as “Is my drinking that bad?” are the wrong ones. They lead us to compare ourselves favorably with people who routinely drink to excess. They imply that if we’re making it to our jobs, fulfilling our social obligations, and keeping the kids alive, then drinking must not be a problem.
In my experience, a more useful query is this: “Does my drinking make sense for me?” This offers up more to think about. It keeps the focus on alcohol’s effect on your life, today, which is different from anyone else’s.
When our drinking no longer makes sense, we tend to do four things:
(1) We drink too much;
(2) we think about drinking;
(3) we think about not drinking; and
(4) we recover from drinking — which is to say, we nurse our hangovers.
These four things burn up a lot of time and energy. When they do, it’s fair to ask whether we’re getting a good return on our investment with alcohol. Do we really want to put this much life energy into something that offers such poor returns? If not, it may be time to change course.
When drinking no longer makes sense, it may be because of alcoholism. Alcoholism is a manifestation of the disease of addiction, and it can be deadly.
The approach I’m suggesting here can be useful whether you’re pursuing sobriety (the term I use when some-one has quit drinking because of addiction and also wishes to work on the deeper emotional issues that led to problematic drinking) or you’re simply choosing to be alcohol-free (a newer term for people who have recognized that they feel healthier when they don’t drink and they want to socialize without alcohol).
Regardless of which term pertains to you, if you decide to start living your life without alcohol, these five pillars can help you make change that lasts.
The 5 Pillars of Sobriety
I stopped drinking more than 22 years ago. At the time, I would have told you I was having lots of fun when I drank — but I wasn’t. I struggled with depression and anxiety, and I used alcohol to cope. It never occurred to me that I didn’t have to drink. I thought everyone drank, and my job was to find a way to manage it more effectively.
When it became clear how much alcohol worsened my anxiety, I quit — reluctantly. I was 27 years old, and I believed I would never have fun again. I thought my life was over.
How wrong I was.
Today, after many years of experience working as a psychotherapist and sober coach, I can honestly say that I never look back. I live joyously in the land of sobriety.
But in working with others, I have seen that stopping drinking by itself isn’t usually enough to create a sustainably sober life. We all do much better when we follow a program to fill the gaps that used to be occupied by alcohol.
I developed the five pillars of sobriety to support that transition — and then help make sobriety a lasting experience. Embarking on this path is about more than avoiding alcohol: It’s about finding new and more sustainable ways to take care of yourself and to live your fullest life.
When we pursue sobriety, movement helps enormously. In fact, I require all my clients to adopt some form of regular exercise.
Movement fills time in a positive way, improves our energy levels, and connects us to others in a healthy fashion. Meeting at the health club for a workout or on some trails for a walk is a terrific way to bond, and it usually leaves us happier than most happy hours.
Movement also supports sobriety on a biochemical level. As Judith Grisel, PhD, notes in her book, Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction, alcohol can act like a “neurological sledgehammer,” interfering with the brain’s chemical balance.
Making time for movement is also an act of self-worth.
Exercise helps stimulate the production of dopamine, serotonin, and other feel-good neurochemicals, helping to restore balance in our brains and moods.
Making time for movement is also an act of self-worth. It means we devote regular time to activities that make us feel better, with no punishment later. A Friday-night yoga class instead of drinks after work. A Monday-morning workout that sets us up for the week. A sober Saturday night with friends, followed by waking up Sunday morning with the energy to exercise. This is the essence of treating ourselves kindly.
You might choose long walks, kettlebell training, long-distance bike rides, short HIIT workouts — how you move doesn’t really matter. What’s important is finding activities that bring you joy, which is the best motivator.
That said, exercising with other people does check a lot of boxes. We can’t fake our fitness with others. We are where we are, which requires an honesty and vulnerability that can lead to deeper, more authentic connections.
Alcohol interferes with our physiological and psychological balance. Drinking can depress the central nervous system and dysregulate mood. It can mess up our body chemistry and make us crave sugar and salt.
We’re also out of balance when we spend hours ruminating about what we said or did the night before, or whether we should have a drink tonight. This energy could be better spent elsewhere.
One of the best tools for cultivating balance is the acronym HALT, which stands for “hungry, angry, lonely, tired” — four common alarm bells that need immediate attention.
Alcohol interferes with our physiological and psychological balance.
When we’re drinking a lot, we may reach for alcohol or head to the bar to satisfy (or silence) these feelings. When we stop drinking, our needs remain the same, but the solutions are different.
Hungry. Sobriety involves learning to listen to our bodies. That means when it’s telling us to eat, we eat. Remind yourself that when intense feelings arise while you’re hungry — impatience, anger, and frustration — they usually disappear once you’ve eaten. Carry some healthy snacks with you so you can always take care of yourself.
Angry. We may feel entitled to a drink when we feel mistreated or resentful. But when we drink to drown out our angry feelings, we don’t learn the vital skills of healthy conflict or how to set proper emotional boundaries.
It’s important to learn to recognize your anger, take some deep breaths, and then figure out what’s going on beneath the feeling, so you can choose your response.
Lonely. Loneliness often causes my clients to stumble; they think alcohol is necessary to sociability. It’s not.
When you recognize that you’re lonely, create a plan to connect. Make a list of all the people you can contact, then call, text, or email someone. Sobriety groups can be particularly helpful in the early stages, as you don’t have to pretend everything is OK. (For more on the loneliness epidemic and how to connect, visit “Why Social Bonds Are So Important for Our Health“.)
Tired. Sleep is critical to maintaining balance. When you’re tired, rest. You can also focus on where and how you spend your energy, so you don’t burn yourself out. Give yourself permission to chill and leave tasks half-done when your energy is low. Observe where your energy gets drained. Change what you can.
Alcohol is sold to us as a vehicle to quick connection. When we drink, we feel like we belong, and belonging is a powerful need. Although lots of people can enjoy alcohol appropriately and use it to enjoy social occasions, it is not necessary for connecting.
For some of us, alcohol can work against it. That’s because the connections we create when we’re drinking may feel more profound than they really are. Alcohol loosens our inhibitions, and what feels like a reasonable thing to say or share after a few drinks ends up producing regret the next day.
Then we may stew in shame and self-loathing about our oversharing, which leads us to feel embarrassed and afraid to face people. At that point, we end up avoiding others and cutting ourselves off from the connection we still truly need.
Alcohol can confuse the messages our bodies send; sobriety allows us to hear them clearly.
We need authentic connection, the kind that helps us feel truly seen and known. If we’re lonely, creating artificial connections through drinking won’t help us satisfy that need. Vulnerability is about being real. This means showing up as the fullest version of ourselves that we can muster, which we can’t do when we’re drunk.
Meaningful connections with others happen when we are connected to ourselves, which requires us to listen to our bodies and emotions. Alcohol can confuse the messages our bodies send; sobriety allows us to hear them clearly.
We are always engaged in different processes: aging, learning a new skill, becoming a new parent, getting a divorce. When one process ends, another begins. These are the building blocks of our human growth.
At the same time, our past behavior patterns are almost guaranteed to show up during transitions in life. If we felt abandoned as children, we may feel abandoned whenever we’re challenged to grow. If our ability to trust others was damaged, or if we were expected to care for everyone else first, we may continue to do those things unconsciously throughout our life.
Until we recognize and reflect on a pattern that was formed in childhood, we’re likely to repeat it whenever we try something new or challenging. Recognizing and reflecting on our patterns is how we develop self-awareness.
But alcohol interferes with self-awareness. It can keep us stuck in patterns, because it prevents us from seeing and knowing ourselves at a deeper level.
To help my sobriety clients move beyond this impasse, I recommend a process called uncover, discover, discard. It helps us develop the self-knowledge we need to escape our limiting beliefs.
Uncover involves revealing behaviors, patterns, and responses that are embedded in the unconscious mind. This helps us identify harmful core beliefs, such as the idea that other people cannot be trusted — or that they will always leave us, no matter what we do.
The next stage is to discover what this behavior, pattern, or response means, where it originates, why we have felt this way, and why we might have avoided examining it. While we may have been hurt by someone breaking our trust in the past, we may discover that it wasn’t personal, and that the other person’s choices had more to do with them than with us.
Our imperfection can be messy, but it also leads to freedom.
At this stage we can also validate how hurt we were and treat ourselves tenderly, acknowledging the pain but not letting it define us. As we recognize that we did not cause our hurtful experience, we may accept that we can’t control people.
We can, however, become more discerning about whom we trust, take small risks, and give people chances.
Then we discard. We let go of the past programming that no longer serves us. In this process, we commit to giving people the benefit of the doubt, to setting boundaries, and to using discernment. We may decide to trust people until they give us a reason not to. If they do, we can refuse to take that behavior personally.
This is how we change our faulty belief systems about ourselves. This is how we stop our limiting beliefs, which were born in the past, from shaping our lives in the present.
Finally, the goal of process work is not perfection but self-acceptance. Am I brilliant at all things? Of course not! I am an average cook, for example, but I am good enough, and that’s all I really need to be.
Moving out of our limiting ways of thinking about ourselves is about accepting our humanness. Our imperfection can be messy, but it also leads to freedom.
We will always be called to grow, as people, as parents, as partners, and in our work and other relationships, even as we feel resistance.
Change is hard: We like the familiar, yet we are not called to be comfortable all the time. Growth is messy, and often frustrating, but pursuing it is worthy of our time and energy.
Alcohol can interfere with our call to growth by distracting and numbing us. When we default to alcohol to manage our emotions, we don’t develop the skills we need to navigate life successfully. We also miss the opportunity to learn vital lessons that will help us become deeper, braver versions of ourselves.
For example, we might fear that we don’t know where we’re headed, and we’d prefer to stay where we are rather than face the unknown. But change will happen no matter how hard we resist it. The mistakes we make along the path are glorious growth opportunities.
There is no such thing as failure — only feedback.
There is no such thing as failure — only feedback. Focus on the feedback, especially if it’s uncomfortable, because within it are the tools we need to get to the next place.
When I stopped drinking, at 27, all I wanted was some peace, a job, and a place to live. This was the sum of my ambition. Yet now I am teaching, coaching, and helping others, because I couldn’t ignore the call to grow. I know it’s calling you, too.
Sobriety offers us more energy and space to think our thoughts and feel our feelings. Imagine what you might do with those resources. What have you been longing to do or try? Are there places you’ve wanted to visit? Experiences you’ve wanted to sample but never had enough energy?
We have a finite amount of time here on Earth, and I am quite sure none of us was born to spend that time fighting a hangover and ruminating on what happened last night.
Remember that none of the pillars of sustainable sobriety needs to be accomplished perfectly. “Good enough” will get us where we need to go.
This article originally appeared as “Sustainable Sobriety” in the October 2022 issue of Experience Life.