A close up image of a man's hands holding a bottle of amber alcohol with a half-filled glass of the alcohol in the foreground

A Harm Reduction Approach to Dry January

Each year, millions of people choose to start their new year by doing a Dry January challenge. This started in 2012 as a public health initiative in the UK. According to a study in BMJ Open, trying this initiative can be linked to better sleep, increased energy, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and reduced cancer-related proteins in blood. Dry January has gained popularity over the years with 41% of US adults surveyed indicating that they intended to attempt Dry January in 2023. However, according to this same survey, only 16% abstained from alcohol for the whole month. 

 Abstinence-only approaches to substance use assume a one-size-fits-all methodology. While these programs can be very effective for some people, they also set many people up to feel shame, guilt, and failure when they do not comply 100% of the time. A 2006 study tracked 695 people recovering from alcohol use for 33 months following their abstinence-only treatment. The results showed that 5.9% of women and 9% of men remained completely abstinent for at least 90 days of those 33 months. Additionally, 34% of individuals who remain abstinent for one to three years end up drinking again. These numbers show that abstinence-only approaches can set people up to feel like they “failed” by creating unrealistic expectations. This year, try to focus on making lasting lifestyle changes whether that means reducing your alcohol use or quitting altogether.

Harm Reduction Tips for Making Lasting Change:

  1. Set Realistic Goals: The first step for success is to set realistic goals for yourself. This way you get the happy brain chemicals of feeling successful in your attempts to modify your behavior rather than feeling the shame and guilt that is often associated with not reaching goals. For drinking, this could mean only drinking on weekends, cutting out hard liquors, drinking one glass of water per alcoholic beverage, or only drinking in social settings. Base your goals off of the changes you want to make rather than what you think other people want you to do.
  2.  Identify Motivations: It will be much easier to change your behavior if you are motivated to do so. Common motivations for reducing alcohol use often include health benefits, improving interpersonal relationships, saving money, and feeling less depressed and/or anxious. Spend time figuring out what your motivations are and how your goals can help you achieve them.
  3. Focus on Mindful Drinking: If you do choose to continue drinking, try to focus on when and why you choose to drink. This can ultimately help maximize the enjoyment of drinking while minimizing the negative side effects and ramifications. Consider journaling about experiences when drinking has been celebratory versus times when you use alcohol as a crutch for negative emotions. What differences do you notice in your mood while drinking? What about after drinking? Gaining mindfulness around your drinking habits can also help you continue to set realistic goals.
  4. Notice Root Causes: The majority of substance use is due to other factors in our lives. Do you notice that you drink more after a stressful day of work? Did your drinking habits increase after a recent breakup? Allow yourself to take note of these root causes without judging yourself. Consider talking to your therapist about learning other coping skills and ways to manage these emotions.

  5. Find Substitutes: Part of the enjoyment of drinking can be the oral fixation of having something to sip on or the taste of certain drinks. Try to find other enjoyable options such as soda, juice, or N/A beers, wines, and spirits. One of my personal favorites, Stop Your Wine-ing, is an herbal alternative that has stress-reducing properties. Ending the day with a non-alcoholic drink can become a new stress-relieving habit.
  6. Allow Yourself to “Mess Up:” One of the great things about harm reduction is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula. No matter what your goals are, be gentle with yourself. If you slip up on one of your goals, try again the next day. By changing your behavior in sustainable ways you are still ultimately reducing the harm in your life. If you continue to struggle with your goals, try to reassess if they are realistic for where you are currently at. There is no shame in adjusting your goals to fit the other factors in your life.

  7. Be Aware of Withdrawal Symptoms: Depending on your current drinking habits, you may notice withdrawal when you start to change your use. These symptoms may include anxiety, shaky hands, headaches, nausea, vomiting, sweating, insomnia, fever, and racing heart. If you notice any of these symptoms, seek medical attention to manage them safely.
  8. Manage Triggers: Work on creating a list of triggers that make you want to have a drink. This could be certain social situations, too much time being home alone, particular people in your life, or being in certain places. For example, especially early on in changing your substance use, it may be challenging to be at a bar with friends. Figure out ways to mitigate this trigger such as asking your friends to go out for dinner or have a game night instead. Even if alcohol is still present, having a primary activity that does not center on drinking can make a big difference.

  9. Urge Surfing: Urges come in waves and typically do not last more than 30 minutes if they are ignored. Try to see how long you can resist the urge to drink. Can you watch an episode of a show or go on a walk and then see if the urge is still there? Can you call a friend and talk to them about the root causes behind the urge? You can try urge surfing meditations to practice increasing your willpower over time. You can also use urge surfing in between drinks to space them out. 
  10. Reward Yourself: Celebrate your accomplishments! Changing your habits around alcohol use is no easy task. Create a reward system that allows you to feel good about the changes you are making. Rewards can also play into your harm reduction goals. For example, instead of an extra drink get yourself a fun snack- this helps you to drink less while giving your body other nutrients to help process the alcohol. You could also treat yourself to a movie or buy a new book which provides other enjoyable activities to occupy your time.


To learn more harm reduction tips and tricks, consider joining our Substance Use Recovery Group!