Can You Train Yourself to Cut Back on Alcohol?

With the excesses of the holidays behind us, a growing number of people have taken on the challenge of Dry January, a pledge to abstain from alcohol for the entire month.

The initiative, launched 10 years ago by the British charity Alcohol Change UK, has emerged globally, reflecting a broader shift in societal attitudes—the so-called “sober curious” movement—that provides a structured, time-limited framework for people to opt to drink less or not at all.

“Many people worry that they drink too much— or too often—but aren’t sure whether they're alcohol consumption has crossed the line into a problem,” said Jeremy Kidd, MD, MPH, an addiction psychiatrist and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Taking a month off from drinking provides an opportunity to reexamine your relationship with alcohol and take note of areas in which drinking may be negatively impacting your life.”

Columbia Psychiatry News spoke with Dr. Kidd, who is a member of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council of Addiction Psychiatry, about whether sober challenges can produce lasting change, strategies for success, signs that you may have a serious drinking problem, and how to help loved ones who are trying to make changes to their alcohol consumption. 

Do Dry January and other sobriety challenges work?

The decision to give up alcohol, even temporarily, is an intensely personal journey. For many people, a month without drinking can lead to improvements in health and wellbeing. People may experience better-quality sleep, increased energy, and improved concentration, as well as improvements in their relationships, work performance, or academic achievement. Such benefits may motivate someone to continue reducing their drinking after Dry January ends. While it is difficult to define and measure the impact of sobriety challenges, a 2016 study found an association between participation in Dry January and reductions in drinking days and number of drinks as well as greater confidence in the ability to refuse drinks.

What happens to the body when a person stops drinking?

Taking a break from drinking, even for a month, allows your body to recover from the effects of alcohol. Improved sleep quality is a notable outcome, as alcohol disrupts normal sleep patterns and can contribute to insomnia. Other benefits include lowered blood pressure, weight loss, a healthier complexion, enhanced mental clarity, improved mood, reduced anxiety, and better liver function.

If someone has been drinking heavily and regularly for some time, their body can become dependent on alcohol. If they stop drinking, they develop symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, which include muscle shaking, sweating, headaches, sensitivity to light or sound, and nausea. If untreated, these can become life-threatening. Individuals at risk for or experiencing alcohol withdrawal should seek medical help.

How do I know if I have a drinking problem? How much is too much?

Alcohol use disorder, or AUD, is a clinical diagnosis characterized by difficulties controlling one’s drinking, intense cravings to drink, and continued drinking despite negative consequences. According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, AUD affects approximately 1 in 10 Americans aged 12 and older. By participating in a sobriety challenge like Dry January or Sober October individuals can be effective in moderating or taking a break from alcohol. However, individuals with AUD typically require more comprehensive interventions. This may include psychotherapy and/or medications to reduce cravings and improve their ability to reduce or stop drinking. Determining how much alcohol is too much is an individualized question and may depend on someone’s age and other health conditions. To reduce alcohol-related health risks, the U.S. dietary guidelines on alcohol consumption recommend that healthy adults limit drinking to one drink per day for women (or 7 drinks per week) and two drinks per day for men (or 14 drinks per week). Additional research is needed to develop guidelines inclusive of broader sex/gender spectrum.  

How can I increase my chances of success in reducing the amount I drink?

Changing habits around alcohol is challenging, and the odds of success are higher if you go in with a plan. Making a list the reasons to curtail your drinking—better-quality sleep, feeling healthier, improving your relationship with your partner—can enhance motivation. Setting realistic and achievable goals, such as defining a number of drinks per week or committing to alcohol-free days, provides a measurable framework for success. The National Institutes of Health provide additional resources. Here are a few example strategies to help you achieve your goals:

  • If you aren’t sure how much you drink, consider keeping track for a week. Keep in mind the differences in alcohol-content between beverage types. Additionally, drinks at restaurants and bars may include more than one serving of alcohol.
  • Explore and engage in alternative activities that don’t revolve around alcohol (e.g., exercise, outdoor activities, book clubs, museums, alcohol-free mocktail bars).
  • At social events, alcohol-free beverages can reduce pressure to drink. Mocktails have become increasingly popular, offering a wide range of flavors, ingredients, and creative combinations. 
  • Surround yourself with people who will support your goals and celebrate your successes along the way. If you have a buddy with similar goals, team up.

How can I support a loved one with alcohol use disorder?

Remember that the journey to recovery from AUD is individualized and may involve several attempts at cutting back or stopping drinking. Any goal, whether moderation or abstinence, is a step in the right direction. As much as possible, focus on the positive and avoid shaming your loved one for setbacks. Shame and guilt only make change harder. Patience is key as well as seeking support for yourself. Groups like Al-Anon provide support to people whose families have been impacted by addiction.

Media Contact

Carla Cantor
Director of Communications, Columbia Psychiatry
347-913-2227 |