The downsides of Dry January: Boredom, isolation, and relapse risk - why cold turkey isn't always the answer

5 January 2024, 07:37

The downsides of Dry January: Boredom, isolation, and relapse risk - why cold turkey isn't always the answer
The downsides of Dry January: Boredom, isolation, and relapse risk - why cold turkey isn't always the answer. Picture: Alamy/LBC
Dr Catherine Carney

By Dr Catherine Carney

  • Dr Catherine Carney is a psychiatrist with a specialist interest in addiction treatment for Delamere.

Hundreds of thousands of people are swapping cocktails for mocktails and pints of bitter for pints of water this month as Dry January encourages a national pause in drinking post-Christmas.

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Launched in 2013, Dry January has grown hugely in popularity as more and more people reassess their relationship with alcohol, aiming for more moderation and conscious consumption.

It has become a true mass participation occasion and national talking point and the charity Alcohol Change UK deserves credit for this.

However, it is NOT for everyone. Individuals who struggle with alcohol dependence may open up a mental and physical can of worms by deciding to stop drinking so suddenly.

Alcohol has many emotional as well as physical attachments for people who drink heavily. It also comes with feelings of denial, those that we describe as ‘functioning alcoholics’.

For these people Dry January may be counterintuitive because proving you can stop for one month does not mean you don’t have an alcohol dependency.

Craving alcohol for the period of abstinence and then having a relapse or blow out on the first day post abstinence is a classic warning sign.

There is also a dangerous physical reaction to consider - withdrawal. Suddenly quitting alcohol if you were a heavy user just the day before can lead to withdrawal symptoms which are, at best, uncomfortable and at worst, deadly.

This is why it is important to consult a doctor before beginning a reduction in your consumption.

The side effects of sudden withdrawal can include seizures, shaking, sweating, hallucinating, insomnia, nausea and diarrhoea. The most severe physical effect is known as delirium tremens, which is lethal in 37 per cent of cases.

These milder physical effects wear off after a few days, but the isolation and boredom that can come from suddenly removing socialising in pubs and clubs lasts the entire month.

Sticking to abstinence in such circumstances is incredibly difficult and a lack of social contact can also contribute to low mood and a return to anxiety and depression. These feelings, in turn, are more likely to mean a return to drinking again.

Putting a proper plan in place for removing alcohol from your life means it is a change that is much more likely to stick. This means replacing many behaviours with new ones and recognising the triggers that make you more likely to drink.

A short-term abstinence, followed by a return to a life of heavy drinking, means any benefits from the month are short-lived at best. Those addicted to alcohol may have caused major internal damage, for instance to their liver and blood pressure levels, and need assistance to regulate their functions.

Addressing the issues behind an individual’s heavy drinking is essential to set them on a different path. All of these are services that trained professionals provide.

For more information about the alcohol addiction services provided by Delamere, visit