Sober Curious: What It Means for You and Your Brain

man sitting in thought at a social gathering

Can you imagine a world in which it’s socially acceptable to ingest cocaine or heroin in public, as a way to “loosen up”? Or a society in which methamphetamine is sold at the grocery store and gas station? Would you believe someone who says it’s OK, or even beneficial to your health, to smoke cigarettes in moderation?

These situations might sound outlandish, but when it comes to the drug called alcohol, Americans believe all of the above are completely normal. Many people don’t even consider alcohol a drug, as if it requires a separate category of its own.

This casual attitude, combined with widespread availability, has helped establish alcohol as the most dangerous drug in the world.

Fortunately, Americans’ attitudes about drinking are changing. Today, people of all ages—especially millennials and Gen Z—are pushing back against the notion that consuming alcohol is a default or a necessity. This rethinking of drinking habits is fueling the fast-growing sober curious movement.

In past decades, the choice to give up drinking was usually associated with rock-bottom addicts. Today, sobriety has been reframed as a liberating and life-affirming choice, even for those who drink “in moderation.” Click To Tweet

HOW ALCOHOL IMPACTS THE BODY AND BRAIN

Americans are more informed than ever about preventable health risks, while seeking pathways to better quality of life and increased longevity. At the same time, scientists and consumers alike now know that drinking can lead to numerous negative effects, such as

  • Poor sleep quality
  • Impaired decision-making/increase in risk-taking behaviors
  • Embarrassment in social situations
  • Depression
  • Anxiety (including “hangxiety,” feeling anxiety after drinking)
  • Accidents and injuries
  • Decreased energy levels
  • Increased risk of chronic diseases, including cancer

You don’t need to have a drinking problem to experience or notice these drawbacks. Even a drink or two per night will impact every system in the body. Compromised liver function, digestion issues, impaired immune system response, and poorer heart health are just some additional effects of drinking, even in so-called “moderation.”

Alcohol also impacts the brain—which means it increases risk of mental health conditions. Many studies have noted that alcohol abuse can damage brain areas like the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. These regions oversee crucial tasks like decision-making, memory, learning, and mood.

Meanwhile, alcohol inhibits healthy blood flow to your brain, which means it can’t work optimally. Research has also linked moderate alcohol consumption (1-7 drinks per week) with lower total brain volume.

As a result, dementia risk rises—and so does the possibility of mental health disorders. In addition to the depression and anxiety listed above, alcohol can lead to or aggravate issues like bipolar disorder, ADD/ADHD, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Alcohol abuse is also associated with increased suicide risk.

WHAT IS SOBER CURIOUS?

The term “sober curious” was introduced by author Ruby Warrington in 2018. In her book Sober Curious, Warrington recommends becoming more aware of drinking habits in a culture that treats imbibing as a given.

In past decades, the choice to give up drinking was usually associated with rock-bottom addicts. Today, sobriety has been reframed as a liberating and life-affirming choice, even for those who drink “in moderation.” Many people are realizing alcohol isn’t adding anything to their life—in fact, it detracts from their health and day-to-day performance.

One caveat must be mentioned: The sober curious approach is likely not the best option for those who struggle with alcohol use disorder. The point of becoming sober curious is to stop or limit alcohol consumption before a problem develops.

If you consistently experience harmful impacts in your everyday life due to drinking, or have tried unsuccessfully to quit or cut down your intake, you may need a different approach. This can include total abstinence and/or an addiction recovery program.

However, for lighter drinkers, becoming sober curious can help introduce more mindfulness around drinking. This may involve:

  • Taking a closer look at why, when, and how much you drink
  • Weighing the perceived benefits versus the risks of drinking
  • Seeking out beverage alternatives to alcohol
  • Choosing activities that don’t center around drinking
  • Abstaining from alcohol for a period of time to “try on” sobriety

GROWTH OF THE SOBER CURIOUS MOVEMENT

Many Americans are now questioning their relationship with alcohol—and many are reducing their consumption or eliminating it altogether. Though the pandemic increased drinking levels overall, young adults are less interested in drinking than in decades past.

The sober curious movement has attracted interest worldwide. Today, nondrinkers can choose from a wider array of nonalcoholic beverages, such as alcohol-free beer, wine, and “spirits” that mimic the originals (without the booze). There are even alcohol-free bars popping up around the country to serve this growing market. 

For those who are interested in discovering what life is like without drinking, various efforts invite them to attempt short-term trials. Dry January, which started in 2013 in the United Kingdom, challenges people to abstain from alcohol for the first month of the year. The similar concept of Sober October was introduced in 2014.

Experimenting with short-term stints of sobriety allows people to experience firsthand the health benefits of abstaining. Many notice numerous positive effects, such as getting better sleep, saving money, and having more time to spend on hobbies and other interests.

HOW TO LIVE A SOBER CURIOUS LIFESTYLE

Choosing to not drink allows you to show up for life 100%: clear-headed and functioning at an optimal level, every day. But how do you navigate a society that still normalizes—even expects—drinking alcohol? Here are some tips:

  1. Ask yourself what alcohol provides.

People drink alcohol for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps you believe it helps you become more social. Or you assume that everyone else is doing it, and you want to fit in. Maybe you use alcohol to relax or unwind at the end of a workday.

Now ask yourself what else might give you that effect. If you want to loosen up before an event, some upbeat music while getting ready at home might do the trick. If you want to relax, you can try chamomile tea, a hot bath, meditation, or deep breathing exercises.

Look for ways to create the effects you desire without relying on booze.

  1. Ask yourself what alcohol takes away.

To stay on track with a sober curious experiment—either abstaining for a period or cutting back—take note of alcohol’s drawbacks.

Does it wreck your sleep or strain your relationships? Do you find yourself unable to remain fully present while spending time with your friends? Are you more likely to eat junk food or skip that morning workout after having a couple of cocktails?

Track all of the ways alcohol interferes with your life. When you consider everything you’ll gain by not drinking—rather than focusing on what you think you’re missing—you’ll shift your perspective.

  1. Plan ahead.

If you’re attending an event serving alcohol, don’t leave home without a plan in place. Decide how much you’ll drink and stick to that limit. Tell a friend for added accountability.

If you’re not drinking at all, ask ahead of time about nonalcoholic drink options or bring your own. If you’re worried about peer pressure, hold and sip something that looks like an alcoholic beverage, such as a club soda with lime.

If you’re concerned that people will offer you alcohol, prepare an answer. Some people choose to say they’re following a healthier diet, they’re the designated driver, or they have an early-morning wakeup.

How much—and what—you share with people is up to you, but you don’t owe anyone an explanation. Moreover, you’ll likely be surprised that most people aren’t concerned about what you’re drinking. Some may even applaud you for making a more responsible choice.

BEING SOBER CURIOUS CAN LEAD TO HEALTHIER CHOICES

A comprehensive global study involving 195 countries over 26 years found that, to minimize health risks, the optimal level of alcohol consumption is zero. Of course, experimenting with the sober curious lifestyle may not immediately inspire you to quit drinking altogether.

But it will give you more awareness of why, when, and how much you drink. Being sober curious can be just the impetus you need to make healthier alcohol choices over the long haul—and eventually quit for good.

Alcohol use disorder and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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