What Dry January Taught Me About Mindfulness

After ringing in the New Year with an overwhelming sense of anxiety, I decided to stop drinking alcohol for a bit. I had been drinking nearly every day throughout December with holiday parties, family gatherings and other adventures, and it was taking its toll. Prior to the holidays, my body was used to 2-3 days a week max with maybe two glasses each time.

At first, I thought I’d just take a couple weeks to get myself back into a healthy routine. I’d start eating better, working out, spending more time on my mental health, and just detoxing in general.

Within the first week, I began to see articles on Dry January—a movement originally created by the UK’s Alcohol Concern to go alcohol-free for the first month of the year. Apparently this social experiment had spread to America and was more popular than ever, especially among the millennial generation.

After reading some of the articles, I decided to incorporate Dry January into my goal for temporary sobriety. Here is how my experiment went…

Week One (January 1-7):
Piece of cake! My body welcomed the break from digesting alcohol. I was finally able to get rid of the cold that had been lingering since late November. I saved some money going out, and I felt my energy and health being restored. I had a brunch date planned with a couple friends on Saturday, and we all agreed to make it a dry brunch. It was refreshing and really nice to wake up without any remnants of a hangover.

Week Two (January 8-14):
On week two, I felt some of the real benefits of not drinking after having recovered from my cold. I was doing daily yoga practices and putting in the extra effort at work to meet new people and do activities outside my daily tasks. My depression medication was working perfectly on my depression because the alcohol that I normally drank every few days wasn’t interfering with its ability to balance my serotonin levels. I felt motivated and happy, but I also still felt anxious and not as well rested as I’d hoped. That part was disappointing, but I figured things would get better as the experiment progressed.

Week Three (January 14-20):
Though I still felt the benefits of not drinking, I also spent some time taking stock of my overall wellbeing. My anxiety was particularly high, and after a stressful day at work, I craved a cocktail to help me unwind. I began to reflect on why I drink alcohol and when, as well as what it does to my mental health. It was discouraging to realize that I wanted a drink when things got stressful, but after some yoga and hot tea, I was able to get past the stress on my own.

What I found most interesting was that the pressure I was putting on myself to not drink was increasing my anxiety to unhealthy levels. On the weekends, I preferred to stay in, and when I did leave my house, I had trouble breathing—a symptom I hadn’t dealt with in years. I was much more worried about social situations than usual because of my need to explain to peers that I wasn’t drinking. It was silly, but then again, anxiety disorder doesn’t always manifest from rational conflicts.

The anxiety also gave me trouble falling asleep. Nothing too serious, but it was taking me longer than usual to calm my brain. And I realized that I was “treating” myself more with unhealthy additions to my diet. Whereas I normally avoid sweets and extra portions, I felt justified in snacking a little extra because I wasn’t wasting those calories or money on alcohol. Why not order the cheesecake? After all, it’s cheaper than a drink!

By this point, Dry January was way more than I had expected. My perceptions of my daily habits and myself were warped, and my ability to control my anxiety was dwindling. Sure, I had lost a couple pounds (even with the cheesecake!) and felt more motivated than before, but was it worth the extra strain on my emotional wellness?

Week Four (January 21-28):
I began week four by breaking my Dry January streak. On Sunday afternoon, I went with my boyfriend and his parents to a new farmhouse brewery in Maryland. I wasn’t sure when I arrived if I was going to drink, but the unique beers on the menu beckoned me. Without dwelling on it too much, I ordered a flight to share and returned to the world of drinking people.

The beers were really good, and I felt myself relaxing. I was more comfortable talking to my boyfriend’s parents and their friends, and I kind of felt like a weight had been lifted. After the outing, I felt really guilty—like I had let myself and others down. Who? I don’t know. But that’s how I felt.

I went home and took a nap, then woke up feeling sluggish and a little bloated. The next day at work, I had a harder time getting out of bed in the morning, but the rest of the day wasn’t too bad. I still felt motivated and energized (as much as you can on a Monday), and my breathing problems had subsided, at least for now.

The rest of the week, I decided not to focus on Dry January too hard. I went out for a nice dinner on Thursday and had one glass of wine, and after a long day of exploring DC, I had a couple old-fashioneds at home with an old friend. Each day that I didn’t dwell on my sobriety, I felt a little better about my decisions and myself.

The main reason I had decided to go dry at all was because I felt like I wasn’t controlling my anxiety as well as I could sober. But the reality was that my anxiety was going to do it’s own thing regardless of what I told it to do (as anxiety often does). I was still using the same techniques as before—deep breathing, yoga, going for walks, listening to podcasts—but when they didn’t work (which they sometimes don’t), I was getting more and more upset, wondering why my sober, fully-operational body couldn’t stop the waves of anxiety from coming.

As the week went on, I realized that putting pressure on my body to stop a disease that can’t be controlled by sheer willpower wasn’t productive. When I let myself enjoy the moment, with or without alcohol, that’s when I was most likely to get past my anxiety. It didn’t matter a whole lot if I had a beer or not.

Week Five (January 29-31) and beyond:
What I learned from my experiment was that avoiding alcohol isn’t a cure-all. I had some health benefits from quitting for a bit, but I also had some issues. What I really learned was that being mindful is what matters most. If you are mindful of what you drink, or eat, or do, or say, you are more in control of your overall health and mental wellbeing than if you just do things without thinking.

The reason why I felt out-of-control after December wasn’t so much because of the amount I was drinking but more because I was drinking without thinking about it. I was having a glass of wine with dinner because someone offered me one, and I was sipping on bourbon with my friends because it was New Year’s. Dry January allowed me to take a step back and think about why I drink and when I really want to drink.

This year, I plan to focus more on being mindful when it comes to my habits. I won’t finish my coffee just because it’s there if it’s making me jittery. I won’t eat a chocolate after dinner because I crave something sweet if I’m already full and satisfied. I won’t skip my workout because it’s been a long day if I know it will improve my mood. And I won’t drink more than I should because those around me are if it’s making me uncomfortable and anxious.

So thank you, Dry January. You may not have done what you set out to do, but you helped me find another important tool in managing my mental illnesses.

Follow my Instagram to stay up-to-date on my daily adventures and share your Dry January stories in the comments!

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