Health & Fitness

What Happened When I Tried Mindful Eating & Drinking Instead of Dry January

Forced mostly indoors by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of my days in 2020 looked the same. I’d roll over in bed every morning to blearily grab my phone and begin scrolling through news alerts to see what catastrophe had arisen while I slept, my brain still digesting the previous emergency du jour. Then I’d drag myself out of bed to stumble through my waking hours like a hamster on a rickety wheel to nowhere. Squeak, I’d log into Slack and face the emails barraging my inbox. Squeak, I’d scroll Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter again. Squeak, I’d log off and stared into the fridge like it held all the answers the Internet didn’t. Squeak, I’d mindlessly crack open a beer and turn on the TV, phone in hand because without these things, my thoughts might have room to breathe.

For the past six Januaries, I’ve cut out alcohol for the entire month in an attempt to find some focus in a world that does its best to keep me off balance, as well as to detox from the excesses of December. In the past, my partner and I have raised our glasses of sparkling water to toast Dry January with all the smug momentum the first few weeks of a New Year typically brings. But then the calendar page flips, and so does our self-imposed penance. Come February, we’d dive right back into our old habits faster than you can say “Cheers!”

But 2021 felt different. This year, I decided to skip Dry January and zero in on practicing intentional consumption instead of abstinence.

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Focusing on mindfulness instead

In 2020, I was far from alone in my efforts to shut off my brain with a glass of something potent. Americans sharply increased their consumption of alcohol during the pandemic, with women in particular increasing their heavy drinking episodes (meaning four or more drinks within a couple of hours) by 41%, according to a RAND Corporation study. Even mild to moderate consumption increased by 14% among adults over age 30, compared to the same time period in 2019.

With Dry January looming, I realized that cutting out booze entirely for one month wasn’t helping me reflect on what drove me to drink in the first place, nor did it have any impact on my consumption during rest of the year. And it wasn’t just hitting the bottle that left my head reeling: The bottom of a wine glass, an empty potato chip bag and my Newsfeed were all staring back at me with the same morass of existential dread and dissatisfaction.

“It is important to become aware of your intention behind alcohol, food and social media consumption because oftentimes, we are using it to mask something deeper,” explains meditation and mindfulness teacher Laurasia Mattingly, author of Meditations on Self Love. When Mattingly embarked on a year of sobriety and celibacy, she realized she was using alcohol and dating to numb her fears, insecurities and feelings of unworthiness. “In that year, I began to notice things that were too painful to notice before because I was never present to it,” she says. After I made the decision to start consuming more intentionally, I noticed the same thing.

Learning to read my body’s cues

Many of us have spent more time with ourselves than ever before over the past nine months. But the constant connectivity of working from home (not to mention proximity to the fridge and liquor cabinet) also offered myriad ways for me to avoid the more intrusive thoughts that crept up on me in the stolen silences between distractions. My new plan: Whenever a worry presents itself (Am I doing enough to help the less fortunate during a crisis that’s eating small businesses alive? Did everyone notice when I misspoke during last night’s Zoom hang? What does wearing the same four shirts for nine months say about me as a person?), I try to be more mindful about putting a stop to the runaway thought train instead of immediately turning to alcohol, food or doomscrolling.

“Before you consume anything, ask yourself if you truly want to be present with whatever it is you want to consume,” Mattingly advises. “Or are you masking something deeper?”

Boundaries set me up for success

In order to cultivate that sense of presence, I started with the basic practices of mindful eating, an approach that focuses on individuals’ sensual awareness and their experience of food. The practice can be its own meditation (think spending an hour contemplating a single raisin) but it can also mean simply slowing down and approaching everything from a quick snack to a full meal with patience and acceptance — and without judgment.

Now, as soon as I hear the kitchen’s siren call, I do a quick body scan to determine whether I’m really, truly hungry or if I’m trying to address anxiety, boredom or an urge to procrastinate instead. Then, if my stomach’s growling, I go for something nourishing instead of the closest bag of packaged snacks. I’m privileged to work from home and have the means to stock my kitchen with whole foods, but I’m also trying to set myself up for success by prepping ready-to-eat food options on the weekends.

The “mindful eating” method works for alcohol and mindless scrolling too. It’s so easy to affix my eyeballs to social media if my phone is always at my elbow. Now, I keep it across the room while I’m working. That extra moment it takes to grab it lets my conscious brain catch up with my body. If I’m actually feeling anxious or depressed, I’ll touch base with a friend or open a meditation app instead. If I’m bored or procrastinating, I’ll set a time limit on how long I’ll let myself scroll to keep from falling into a social media spiral. Giving myself set boundaries helps keep me on track, without totally abstaining from the sweet nectar of connectivity.

Drink?: The New Science of Alcohol and Health

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As for alcohol, taking a beat to think about what I really want and making a plan ahead of time helps keep my consumption healthy. “Because the harms of alcohol increase markedly with relatively small increases in consumption, being aware of how much you are drinking is critical to staying in the relatively ‘safe’ level,” explains neuropharmacology professor David Nutt, author of Drink. I’ve found that simply telling myself how many drinks I’ll have that night helps keep me from sliding into “just one more” territory.

Instead of thoughtlessly downing a few light beers when watching a game, I’ll enjoy a really good IPA that my tastebuds enjoy more. If I’m enjoying a post-work libation, I’ll turn it into an experience by crafting a complex cocktail or pouring a slightly nicer glass of wine that transports me (mentally, anyway) to one of the dimly lit bars I dearly miss. Paying attention to what and how much I’m drinking reduces the chances I’ll go overboard and helps me stay present in the experience, too.

Looking forward to a new mindset

It’s still too early to tell if my commitment to mindfulness will last longer than the month of January does. When British researchers looked at how people form habits in the real world, the resulting study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, showed that it took from 18-254 days (with a median of 66 days) for a new behavior to stick. But one of the best parts of living with intention is the necessity to keep coming back to it and noticing where we falter. Perhaps that’s the most appealing part for me, as a person who’s inclined to beat myself up over perceived failures. There’s no failing at mindfulness, just noticing where I fell, dusting off my figurative knees and continuing on.

The COVID-19 crisis has made life more challenging for everyone — including those who struggle with sobriety. So it’s important to note that these mindfulness techniques don’t work for everyone. Those with a substance abuse disorder, who experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to cut back their drinking, or struggle with moderating their consumption should seek professional support. Here are a few helpful resources:

  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline is a confidential, free, 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year information service for individuals and family members facing mental illness and/or substance abuse issues, operating in both English and Spanish. It can connect callers with local treatment options, referral services and support groups.
      • Alcoholics Anonymous is perhaps one of the most well-known substance abuse disorder treatment models, and also has online resources to find support, as well as virtual meetings.
        • For those who want a community of like-minded mothers, the Sober Mom Squad can help you stay sober (or explore the possibilities of a booze-free lifestyle) even through the stress of parenting.

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