As a psychologist who specializes in addiction, in my private practice in Torrance I have worked with many who seek to cut down on their drinking. However, the goal of cutting drinking down is a controversial in the field of addiction medicine. Many of my colleagues believe that continued use even in moderation can worsen someone’s existing condition, while for high-risk individuals, reduced alcohol intake does not slow down the progress toward addiction.
In my professional experience, cutting down on drinking is a feasible option for those with less-severe drinking problems or when someone wants to have a trial period of reduced drinking prior to committing to abstinence. But be careful: since you continue to activate the reward pathway in your brain by moderate drinking, in order to succeed you will need to have a concrete plan to reduce your consumption and track your progress. Below you will find a few tips that have helped many of my clients cut back on drinking:
Tip 1: Counting and Measuring Your Drinks
You will not be able to assess your progress or reach your goals unless you have an exact assessment of your baseline. For the next seven days you need to write down exactly how much and what kind of drinks are you having. You can input the data on your phone or print out this sheet and track it there.
If you want to compare your results with the national average, keep in mind that standard drinks are usually less than what you would think. A standard drink is 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol. The drinks restaurants serve are significantly larger than standard drinks. A pint of beer is considered 1.33 standard servings and a mixed cocktail usually is 1–3 standard servings.
Tip 2: Identifying Your Final Goals
Set aside a quiet time and write down why cutting back on your drinking is important for you. Some of my clients wish to reduce their intake for health reasons, while others choose to do so because of the negative effects of alcohol on their relationships. It’s important to be clear what your goal is and to imagine how would you feel inside if you achieved it.
Then write down the maximum number of alcoholic drinks you can indulge in per day and per week that still would allow you to reach the goal you identified in the first part of this exercise.
If you are not certain about how much would be too much for you, you can use the recommendations of the National Institute on Alcoholism (NIAAA) as a guideline. Based on their research, they advise men under age of 65 not to have more than 4 drinks in day and no more than 14 drinks in a week. For women the number is significantly lower: no more than 3 drinks per day and 7 drinks per week. Those whose drinking exceeds this number are considered heavy or at-risk drinkers.
Now that you are clear on your final goals, compare them to where you are now. If your goal is to reduce your drinking and not to abstain, I highly recommend that you start with cutting back your intake around 15% to 20%. The goal is to set you up for success. Short-lived, drastic tactics will only reduce your self-efficacy if they are not paired with long-term results.
After identifying the number that is right for you, choose an accountability partner and share your weekly goals with him or her. People usually choose their spouses or non-drinking friends; however, you may choose to post about it on social media if you can get support there.
Tip 3: Knowing Your Triggers and Plan Accordingly
Have you noticed any pattern in your drinking? Perhaps you find yourself drinking immediately after a stressful day at work or with a certain group of friends. Often heavy drinking serves a purpose, and to aid you in addressing it, it will be helpful to identify its triggers. People often have internal and external triggers. Internal triggers can be different emotions, such as sadness, boredom, or fear, and external triggers are often people, locations, and situations.
After identifying your specific triggers, come up with alternative ways to address them or avoid them. For example, if you identify depression and anxiety as your triggers, you can use a number of behavioral techniques, such as breathing exercises, behavioral activation, or other cognitive behavioral techniques.
It may be essential for you to seek professional help to effectively address such issues. For external triggers, it is the best if you can avoid them, at least at the stage. For example, if you drink at a certain bar after work each day, it would be essential for you to use an alternative route to get home.
Tip 4: Plan Your Week
One of the biggest mistakes that people make is allowing themselves a lack of structure in how they will reduce their drinking. Planning will help you to identify high-risk situations and prepare for them accordingly. Each week, think about the week ahead and identify the potential high-risk situations.
Some of these might be events where alcohol will be served, if you tend to drink at such events. Strategize how you will approach an event to guarantee that you will not exceed your weekly goal. When planning for those situations it’s helpful to avoid the 3 As:
- Avoid having more than one serving of alcohol per hour
- Avoid returning to your past drinking patterns (e.g., drinking with the same group of friends at the same place)
- Avoid drinking as a way to manage your problems (e.g., If your internal trigger is anxiety, make it a point not to drink alcohol when you are anxious).
If you know you will encounter a situation that you consider to be high risk, ask a supportive friend to come along with you.
What If Cutting Down is Not The Answer For You?
In reality, for many, by the time they decide to try reduced drinking, it might be too late, due to their medical conditions, history of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, or failed attempts at reduced-risk drinking. It is the best to identify the exact amount of time that you will give yourself to see whether cutting down drinking is the right approach for you and to track your success. If you experience repeated failures to stay with your predetermined goal, abstinence might be the answer for you. Check out this blog to learn how you can start your journey toward abstinence.
Bio: Dr. Nazanin Moali, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist offering treatment for addiction using both moderation management and abstinence-based approaches in her office in Torrance and online. Dr. Moali has several years of experience offering effective addiction counseling treatment in hospitals, intensive outpatient, and private practice. She lives with her family in Rancho Palos Verdes and is passionate about serving the South Bay community.