Psychologist Helen O’Connor shares with us her 12 tips and ideas for moderating and controlling alcohol at Christmas.
Moderating and controlling alcohol
This can be a time of (over) indulgence for many of us, with average alcohol consumption increasing by a staggering 40%. People who are or have been concerned about their drinking and are trying to do something about it can feel particularly concerned and vulnerable at this time of year. They worry that they will undo all their good work when they look at their diary and can’t seem to see a day or night for weeks on end when there won’t be booze involved. Just imagining how bad they are going to feel about themselves whilst and after consuming all this alcohol can make them feel panicky and anxious.
There are ways you can feel more in control of alcohol at this time of year – balancing a realistic outlook with a change in thinking and some tweaks to your usual Christmas traditions and routines.
Here are my 12 Days of Christmas (Booze Control) tips and suggestions.
Challenge the norm.
There are no rules or laws governing festive alcohol consumption. Yet somehow it has become the norm for people to plan for a full month of heavy drinking, or at least to feel as though their ‘hands are tied’ at this time of year when it comes to moderation. Why not be different? Challenge the assumptions and norms that say you should drink all month, and that everyone’s looking for the opportunity to do so. Plus, if you’re already feeling a bit anxious about how much you will be drinking at this time of year, what does that tell you about the role booze has in your life? It is logical to plan or try to find excuses to drink more heavily than usual?
What does your brain need? Alcohol is a mind-altering substance affecting lots of neurotransmitters in the brain. Do you really need the buzz of booze to lubricate every social situation and celebration? If you think you do, why is that? Perhaps you are shy, or bored, or don’t especially enjoy the company you are keeping? These might be issues you want to address one day. This time of year can also be emotional. Though it comes with many ups there are also downs for some people: stress in the kitchen, cramped houses full of guests, family arguments, money worries, loneliness, missing loved ones. Will you be more in control of your emotions when you are drinking, or when you are having days off and moderating? What’s more, can you fully experience the richness of the ups, be present for your loved ones, and build positive memories if you are on the sauce half the time?
“Four days of indulgence is a thrill. A month of utter indulgence is sabotage”
Know your true festive pleasures – and ditch the rest. Although it’s diet-related, I pinched this one from Louise Parker (aka Figure Magician) because I think this philosophy and attitude works just as well for alcohol. Think about the festive period as a few days of relaxing your rules and enjoying doing so, rather than a whole month of gratuitous over-consumption that leaves you feeling guilty, anxious or even unwell. If there are aspects of festive drinking that you do enjoy – mulled wine at the Christmas Market, a mimosa at noon on Christmas Day – then look forward to and enjoy those things. Balance that with cutting out the drinking that isn’t a pleasure, that is mindless or unnecessary, or that will spoil your enjoyment of your day.
“I’m still not happy with where I am with my drinking, I should still be reducing.”
Protect the progress you’ve already made. It’s great that you have already started to make some changes to your drinking, and you possibly want to go further with reducing how much you drink. But maybe over the festive period you can be happy with maintaining where you’re at rather than pressuring yourself to reduce even more than normal. This leads on to the next tip.
Deviate qualitatively, not quantitatively. If you have already managed to cut back to drinking, say, three times a week, and have three large glasses of wine each time (3o units a week), then your ‘good enough for now’ festive goal could be to drink no more than this. You can move the days you drink around to cover the big events, like Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve, and you might drink different drinks (mulled wine, fizz, eggnog etc). What’s important is to keep to the units you usually drink (calculate them here) and make sure you don’t go over that. It can help you feel less anxious if you know that there are options to drink differently whilst not drinking more. This doesn’t stop you from reducing further still when you are ready.
Set limits and parameters. Simply hoping you will stick to your intentions is not the same as planning how you will stick to them. You will need to set some limits and rules around your drinking so that you know you are containing the days, times, and quantities you drink. There are so many possible parameters you can set. For example – I still want to have four days off booze every week; I will only drink with food/meals; I will have one glass of fizz after 12pm on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and after that I won’t drink again until the meal is served; I won’t drink alone or watching TV; If I drink at lunch I won’t drink in the evening etc.
“But I have to see SO many people at this time of year. I’m out or doing something almost every night.”
Let planets collide. At this time of year there can be expectations to see certain friends and family, and it’s a nice opportunity to catch up with people we don’t see very often. One way of cutting back on the number of social events you have is to see more people at once, even if that involves getting separate groups of friends and family together. If you have the space and/or energy you could host a pot-luck, bring-your-own brunch or buffet. Or you could arrange a get-together in a cafe, restaurant or bar. That way, you still see everyone you want to see, and they see you, but you don’t have so many social events going on and can plan some days off booze.
Drive (and don’t sleep over). Driving yourself or offering to drive others is a common coping strategy for anyone wanting to cut back on how much they drink, especially if certain events or groups of people are high risk for over-indulgence. Even if you do consider the festive period extends from 1st December to 1st Jan (see #3) you could plan on driving three times a week which would immediately cut down on the number of days you drink. Even if you only plan to drive to and from daytime events and visits, you will have cut out lots of daytime drinking, which is often where people come unstuck over the holidays. Driving gives us more freedom to see more people, and control over when we arrive and leave.
Bring/buy 0% options. There are loads of zero and dealcoholised options around these days, and more interesting non-alcohol drinks. Stock up on a complete bar-cart of alternative drinks. Get lots of choices and options in for yourself over the festivities and buy enough so you can take things to other people’s houses where you are a guest too. Try some 0% beers and wines, cordials, teas, fancy hot chocolate, posh ginger beer. If you plan to alternate an alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic one on the days you do drink, having some nice alternatives will help.
Do something you enjoy (without alcohol) each day. Some of you will be cooking for and hosting guests over this period, or travelling around the country visiting. It can feel stressful at times and difficult to make time to do things that you enjoy. But try to plan your days so that there are things in it that give you pleasure, and that you don’t need to drink alcohol to do. This time of year is great for going on long frosty walks, playing board games, watching movies, visiting or entertaining, bingeing on box-sets. Most gyms are open except on the main holidays, it’s always possible to go for a run (why not ask Santa for some new trainers and sportswear?), there are high street sales, and winter markets. You can get on Pinterest to plan a redecoration project, do some batch cooking so that your freezer is full for a healthy start to the New Year, tidy a cupboard…Whatever it is, try to do something each day that is nourishing for the soul, healthy, satisfying, or joyous.
Strategically pre-commit to a month off booze. Your present-self can do your future-self a big favour by committing to taking a booze break in 2017. Because New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday this year you cna get on it on day 1.
Psssst! We’re running the Sober Sprint (Month Off Booze) online support programme again in January, and you can sign up here.
Practice self-compassion. Hopefully these ideas will help you adjust your thinking and routines to manage your booze intake over the festivities. But if you do over-indulge try not to beat yourself up. As the saying goes, ‘people don’t become overweight just because of what they eat between Xmas and New Year, they become overweight because of what they eat between New Year and Christmas’. The same applies to your drinking: If you can commit to and plan to have a good 50 weeks starting 1-Jan, it will be easier to forgive yourself for a ‘blip’ during the 2 weeks of Christmas.