Don’t be too hard on yourself

You’ve set yourself a goal to cut back on alcohol but you’ve slipped up along the way – here’s how to get things back on track.

Whatever your goal, any achievements you make in cutting back on drinking are worthwhile. The closer you get to the government's lower risk guidelines the better. It’s a good idea to remind yourself of this if you slip up while on your cutting back on alcohol journey.

A single “lapse” might be drinking more than you had planned to do on one occasion. It’s important to recognise that this does not necessarily need to become a “relapse” – when you go back to regularly drinking at harmful levels. The important thing is to be aware and take action.

Lapses happen

The first issue to think about as you plan how you will keep on track is that lapses are probably going to happen. “Things might go pear shaped from time to time and it can feel demoralising,” says Dr Paul Wallace, Chief Medical Adviser for Drinkaware. “It’s very likely that in a ‘high risk’ situation, you will face the temptation to abandon your goals.” For example, you might be at a social occasion like a wedding or a wake.

Recognise that you have lapsed and try not to treat it as an unforgivable failure. If you don’t, the risk is that you could go back to old drinking habits rather than to lower levels because you’ll feel demotivated.

Taking breaks reduces alcohol tolerance

Dr Sarah Jarvis, a London-based GP and member of Drinkaware's independent Medical Advisory Panel, argues that this is why waking up one day and saying that you will give up alcohol altogether, could equate to setting yourself up to fail. “What works is setting realistic targets, so you could start with having regular breaks from alcohol,” she says.

Taking a break can help reduce your tolerance to alcohol and can make it easier to cut back.”

This is because if you regularly drink too much alcohol, your tolerance to it increases and you need to consume more to get the same effects. This is when you could become dependent on alcohol without realising. Taking a break from alcohol can have the effect of lowering or “resetting” your tolerance, so that it becomes easier to cut back.

Plan for lapses

Having a contingency plan is crucial. It will help you to avoid negative thinking. “Set yourself up so that you recognise that when you do have a glitch, it is a glitch, rather than meaning you’re a failure and there’s no point in trying” says Dr Jarvis. 

These kinds of thoughts will only serve to lower your self-esteem, perhaps creating a vicious cycle.

Learn from lapses

Learning from lapses should be part of your contingency plan. Try and avoid going back to high risk situations. Ask yourself the question “What did I really want?” “Perhaps you were bored, stressed, or upset,” says Mandy Cassidy, a Psychotherapist. You might have fallen back into the pattern of drinking automatically. Keep a note of how you feel before you drink to figure out what alternative thing you can do instead when you are in that vulnerable place.

For example, if you figure out that you could lapse because you’re stressed, think about what alternative things you could do to manage this. You might try taking up a new sport or hobby, for example. You need to challenge the ‘automatic thought’ that whenever you’re stressed/bored/celebrating/socialising, you ‘need’ an alcoholic drink and that nothing else will do. These automatic thoughts are often deeply ingrained and will take a while to break, but the more often you challenge them, the less often you’ll feel that your only course of action is to have a drink.

Being honest with yourself will help you to come through the lapse. Make a list of all the pros of drinking. If you think drinking helps you relax or socialise, try finding other ways to wind down or interact with a group of friends.

Manage the process of change

Also, list the minus points of making the change to drink less. It might be that you think you would miss out on certain social events at work for example. Consider setting different goals to manage these. “If a goal isn’t working for you, set a different one that’s more realistic,” says Cassidy. “Do not let yourself off the hook.”

Instead of being hard on yourself when you slip up, congratulate yourself for what you have achieved. Each week, revisit your different goals and list your progress, whether it’s having one drink less or none at all. Notice how you feel, perhaps you are sleeping better or achieving more at work. Seeing the whole thing as a process of change, rather than an immediate one, can make cutting back to sensible limits easier.

Page updated: June 2014