“Go on, have a drink. Go ooooooon! What’s wrong with you? Stop being so boring.”
If you’ve ever tried giving up alcohol, even for one night, you’re bound to have heard a version of the above from at least one of your friends. In the past I’d only made half-hearted attempts to stop drinking and this was always enough to undo me. But the good news is that once you’ve decided you want to stop, overcoming this hurdle is about as hard as it gets.
For many of the people I spoke to for this article, and for me as I hit six months of not drinking, social situations are the hardest. Throughout our evolution as humans we’ve been hardwired to follow the crowd — our ancestors who did were more likely to survive to pass on their genes. But there are ways to re-frame things to make it easier for you to stand your ground.
Not drinking: the new rebellion
When I was younger, a big part of drinking was about rebelling. But as adults there isn’t anything more mainstream than drinking. It’s so deeply woven into our society to go mostly unremarked. Can you imagine many of our societal rituals without it — weddings, birthdays, Christmas parties, even funerals? Embracing the spirit of rebellion that drew many of us to alcohol in the first place is one way you can resist peer pressure.
“Drinking and being wild used to be a form of rebellion in a way,” says Nic, a 34-year-old property developer who gave up alcohol just after New Year. “Now I find that not drinking is going against the grain, and I weirdly enjoy being the odd one out.”
The spirit of rebellion against what the generation before did is one of the reason many younger people are choosing not to drink.
Research showed the number of under-25s opting for total abstinence from alcohol leapt by 40 percent in just eight years, with young people overtaking the elderly as the most sober generation.
As well as the health and rebellion aspects there’s also a theory that a generation that entered their drinking years when social media was already around quickly learned to moderate their behaviour rather than being publicly humiliated. For my generation, any evidence of drunken indiscretions would first need to be developed and then physically handed around.
Giving up is easier than you think
Once you get past your friends pressuring you to drinking at the beginning of a night out, going alcohol-free gets much easier.
“I actually haven’t found it hard — first few weeks breaking habits was the hardest,” says Sarah, a 42-year-old personal trainer. “But now it’s more normal. Social pressure is the toughest — it’s really socially unacceptable to not drink and that’s crazy when you think about it.”
Nic agrees that after you get over the initial phase it’s plain sailing. “The initial month or so was tough,” he says. “But that quickly subsided. Other than that, the temptations have been very few and far between.”
You make better decisions
While there are obvious direct health benefits from not consuming alcohol, there are many more benefits that result from you being in the right state of mind to make better decisions — about what you eat or, for me, how I spend my money. I bought a lot of things I didn’t need last year and much of that came from hungover comfort shopping for gadgets online.
For some people it means thinking more about how and who they date — and how far they will go on a date.
“I wanted to make conscious choices especially when it came to men,” says Camille, a 37-year-old wellness facilitator. “I’ve really slowed things down when it comes to being intimate when dating, and that has allowed other areas to develop, and more connection to build which I wasn’t expecting.”
The battle between your higher self and your animal urges
In my meditation teaching, I talk about how one of the basic aspects of the human condition is that we have contradictory voices in our heads. We’re both the goal-orientated thinkers who make plans towards our glorious futures and the product of our more animalistic pasts, creatures that can only think about now and take every pleasure that comes along.
In fact, we have different parts of our brains that control these different parts of “us”. What we think of as our more rational self lives in the pre-frontal cortex, the outer part of the brain that came along relatively late in our evolution.
This “higher self” has to contend with our more primal urges, which come from the limbic and reptilian parts of the brain. These are concerned with survival and basic functions — eating, fighting, mating — just your regular Saturday night out!
When we drink, alcohol decreases activity in the pre-frontal cortex which is why we often make bad decisions when we’re drinking.
The pre-frontal cortex part of you can say in the taxi on the way out, “Just two drinks and that’s it – I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow.” But the later you who’s had two drinks is operating from a different part of the brain and is much more likely to overrule that.
(Incidentally, meditation helps strengthen the pre-frontal cortex and means your “higher self” will be in the driving seat more of the time.)
Moderation vs going all in
One option to consider — and one that a lot of people have pushed me on — is to cut down rather than cut it out completely. While this is better than continuing to drink heavily, it can be a lot harder to manage. It’s rare to meet people who can maintain their willpower after a couple of drinks (see above).
“I definitely had dependency issues and a propensity to self-medicate, especially in high stress situations which is frequent with the business I own,” says Nic. “The obvious answer, once I was honest enough to face it, was eliminate alcohol entirely from my life, as moderation was simply not something that I was capable of.”
As well as your will power crumbling in the moderation approach, it’s much easier for your friends to twist your arm. “I’m not drinking” is a much stronger position than “I’m just having a couple”.
No absolute truths
What I’ve learned these last six months is that there are no absolute truths when it comes to alcohol — it’s not all good, but it’s not all bad either.
We all have our personal relationship with it. People will try to tell you what the best approach to alcohol is, but everyone is different and everyone is at a different stage. What’s right for someone else isn’t necessarily right for you. And what was right for you yesterday isn’t necessarily right for you today.
I’ve had countless amazing times drunk and wouldn’t swap them for anything. But now it feels right not to drink — for the time being at least. And if it’s the right time for you too, then you should respect that and go with it. It might not be the right time for some of your friends but they’re on their own journeys. Embrace the new rebellion and follow your own path.
Reports from the field
Nic, 34, property developer – Day 170 off alcohol
What inspired you to stop drinking? I felt controlled by my habits which I deeply disliked. I could also see a correlation with alcohol use and poor decisions and bad moods. I wanted to gain control of these situations, as well as to generally improve my health.
Number one benefit? It’s aided my relationships, I’ve recovered my hunger and motivation, improved my health (training again and have lost 10kg) and it’s given me the time and drive to do many more extracurricular activities.
Toughest challenge? The toughest part is probably people understanding why I’m doing it, and not feeling uncomfortable or confronted by my decision. I find a lot of friends don’t know how to socialise or spend quality time without having alcohol, and there are a few people I’ve seen less since stopping drinking.
Camille, 37, wellbeing facilitator – Day 247 off alcohol
What inspired you to stop drinking? I wanted to feel more connected consciously, not numb or avoiding my emotions.
Number one benefit? A more stabilised mood, weight loss and having much more awareness in regards to my emotions and being able to process them in a loving way.
Toughest challenge? Friends who I used to drink with feeling uncomfortable around me because they feel they can’t drink in front of me.
Kylie, 48, public speaker – Day 80 off alcohol
What inspired you to stop drinking? My grandfather died from alcohol poisoning and my mother and siblings are big binge drinkers — I wanted to stop history repeating itself.
Number one benefit? Instead of pouring a drink at bubble-o-clock (5pm each night) and watching mind-numbing TV, I now use this time to work on my business, so I now get much more productivity out of my day.
Toughest challenge? By far the toughest has been maintaining my social life sober — going to bars, pubs, social events and drinking water. For the first three weeks I was a hermit. I’m now going out most weekends but I’d be lying if I said I’m enjoying the experience!
Sarah, 42, personal trainer – Day 87 off alcohol
What inspired you to stop drinking? I felt intuitively like I needed a break. I wanted to break the need to drink every weekend, every time I went to dinner, etc.
Number one benefit? I like how I feel so clear all the time. And the money I’m saving! I never drank during the week but now feel I’ve released the need for always drinking on weekends.
Quentin, 39, journalist – Day 177 off alcohol
What inspired you to stop drinking? It started as a bet with a friend, but I kept going after he gave up. I’ve done this before and I find that after a couple of months, not drinking gains a momentum of its own.
Number one benefit? The feeling of being in control: you become more even-tempered and more decisive. So I don’t hang around for hours at events I’m not really enjoying, for example. And I find it easier to stick to other plans, like working on my distance running.
Toughest challenge? It made me a bit anti-social, at least to start with. Once you’ve been talking to people for half an hour or so, it’s easy to forget you’re not drinking. But I don’t always want to show up in the first place.
Rory Kinsella teaches Vedic Meditation in Sydney, which he credits with giving him the willpower to stop drinking. He runs a free intro talk most Monday nights in Bondi. Click or tap here for more information.
Sign up to his online meditation course designed to help people cut down or quit alcohol.