There are three stages to cutting back on alcohol. “First of all you need to make the decision to cut back for yourself,” says Professor Paul Wallace, Chief Medical Adviser for Drinkaware. “Then think about how you are going to do it, and get yourself set up to make the change. Next, consider ways to stay on track – or to keep motivated.”
Keeping on track is about learning skills to help you stick to your goals and make changes to your lifestyle. Here we’ll give you the help you need.
So, you’ve made the decision to cut back on drinking, that’s your goal, right? Well, not really. “‘To cut back on drinking’ is not a goal,” says Psychotherapist Mandy Cassidy. “You need to be more specific. How much do you want to cut back, how often and when will you review your progress?”
Think about who else your goal might affect. For example, it might influence your relationship with your partner. Get help for how you will plan cutting back on alcohol with your partner.
Think about the motivation behind your goal. 'I want to goals' are those we choose to pursue because we believe in them. For example, you might want to cut back so you’re drinking within the low risk drinking guidelines (of no more than 14 units a week for both men and women) because you want to be healthier or have more energy. 'I have to goals' are based on self-imposed factors such as a desire to please someone else rather than yourself. You are less likely to stick to these kinds of goals.
Take a 360 degree view of your decision to cut back on drinking. “Doing so includes considering the minus points, as well as the plus points, of making the change,” says Cassidy. This can help you identify what might stop you succeeding. So, you might always drink too much with a certain group of friends and could plan to do something different with them. Or instead of missing out on after work gatherings you enjoy, suggest having something to eat first and set yourself a one or two drink limit.
Discuss your progress with friends and family. Ideally, get them to join you. “We’re much more likely to stick to our aim of cutting back on drinking if we make a public commitment to do it,” says Dr Joan Harvey, a Newcastle University-based Clinical Psychologist. This will help you feel supported as you make the change.
People, places, times. These could all be triggers to drinking alcohol. Think about what your own personal triggers to drink alcohol are and how you can change your behaviour to fit your lifestyle. “It’s all about learning how to break associations,” says Dr Harvey. “So if coming home from work is one of your triggers and you automatically reach for a drink without thinking, plan an alternative thing you could do to break this association. You could go for a walk or read instead, for example.”
If you’re worried you may be not be able to break your triggers, learn about the symptoms of alcohol dependence and how to get help.
Our free Drinkaware: Track and Calculate Units app can help you set yourself a goal and track your progress. Also keep a note of how you feel as you cut back to help motivate you. You might have more energy, be sleeping better or feel clearer at work. Use our app to add up the calories you are not consuming and save the money you would have spent on alcohol. That will help you to concentrate on what you can have (whether that’s a food treat or some other purchase you’ve had your eye on, for example) rather than what you’re giving up.
It is important to encourage yourself along the way. Even if your progress has been small, give yourself some praise. The main thing is to keep going in a positive direction – even if progress is slow and erratic. “Think about what kind of rewards you might be able to give yourself,” says Dr Sarah Jarvis, a London-based GP and member of Drinkaware's Medical Advisory Panel. This might be a new item of clothing, a trip to the cinema or some time to yourself. The best rewards are personal to you and immediate.
If you’re experiencing powerful cravings when you cut back on alcohol, you could have become alcohol dependant without realising it.
Talk to your GP who can help you with this and, if appropriate, arrange for you to access specialist alcohol services. You can also refer yourself to these services for help cutting back.
If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0300 123 1110.