10 Ways to Cut Back on Booze

by Patty Onderko Health Writer

The last year has been stressful, to say the least. If you've been turning to alcohol to relax and, well, not freak completely out, you're not alone: The frequency and amount of alcohol consumption more than doubled in 2020 compared to 2018, according to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Popular culture certainly hasn't helped, with "wine time" decor and alcohol "sippy cups." But the added drinks can take a toll on your physical and mental health. Ready to scale back? We’re with you.

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Track Your Drinks

“Everyone should consider their alcohol use from time to time,” says Paul Earley, M.D., president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and medical director of Georgia Professional Health Program in Atlanta. Document exactly how many beers, glasses of wine, or cocktails you drink in a given day, week, or month using this handy-dandy drinking tracker card or the Cutback Coach app. Note, too, any consequences you might have experienced (a headache perhaps?) after or during drinking. Seeing in black and white the amount you're consuming might be enough to inspire you to cut back.

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Don't Fool Yourself on Portion Size

When tracking consumption, it's important to know what exactly constitutes a “drink.” After all, says Dr. Earley, “we are very good at fooling ourselves.” That close-to-the-rim-filled glass of Malbec? It probably counts as two or three drinks. Heavy alcohol use is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as more than four drinks in a day for men or more than three drinks for women. A drink equals five fluid ounces of wine, a 12-oz. beer, or a 1.5-oz. shot of a distilled spirit like whiskey, vodka, or rum.

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Set Small Goals

Mary Reid, the executive director of Moderation Management (MM), a nonprofit support group for people looking to moderate their drinking instead of abstaining altogether, says her members find success when they create attainable goals. Begin your “cocktail hour” (or the time you start drinking) an hour later, for example. Abstain one day a week. Cut yourself off an hour before you go to bed. All of these small habits can lead to long-lasting changes in the amount you drink—and lead to further reductions.

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Remind Yourself

Just like writing out a to-do list helps you get things done, writing down what you don't want to do is helpful, too. Reid says this is a favorite among MM members. Stick Post-it Notes on your fridge or liquor cabinet to remind you of your goals: “Go for a walk instead!” or set automated alerts on your phone, timed for whenever you typically reach for a bottle. A small reminder—“You can do this!”—might be just enough to make you wait an hour before pouring your first drink, helping you cut your consumption.

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Avoid Your Triggers

Drinking is habitual, says Dr. Earley, so if you change the habits surrounding your drinking, you can successfully cut back. If you're used to drinking at 6 p.m. every day, for example, make plans to see a movie or take an exercise class during that time instead. Or swap your usual beer for a fruity seltzer or a mocktail. If certain friends always encourage drinking, make plans with them—a museum visit, say, or volunteering—that don't allow for imbibing (or decline social engagements with them for the time being).

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Don't Expect It to Be Easy

Moderation or drinking less is not always easier than abstaining, says Reid. “Cutting back may never come easily for some or even most. It requires commitment, vigilance, and patience with ourselves. It is reminding ourselves daily that saying no to another drink is saying yes to so much more.” Many MM members end up choosing abstinence indefinitely because it's easier for them to simply take alcohol out of the equation, she says.

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Examine Why You're Drinking in the First Place

“Even at moderate doses, alcohol use can be an attempt to mask uncomfortable feelings or adjust to a new situation,” says Dr. Earley. “Even if there is not an obvious problem, it's good to understand why you're drinking.” There could be healthier ways to deal with your circumstances, but as long as you're drinking, it's unlikely you'll discover them. “Like all sedatives, alcohol tamps down grief and you don't process feelings.” Talk to friends, family, or a therapist to examine the psychological underpinnings of your cravings and find alternative ways to cope.

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Take a Temporary Break From Alcohol

A dry period can kickstart successful, sustained moderation, says Dr. Earley. He recommends 30 to 60 abstinent days—no drinking at all—as a trial. With a month or more of evidence, you'll be able to see how you feel without alcohol. Are you sleeping better? Can you do 40 minutes instead of 20 on the exercise bike? Are you more productive? When and if you decide to go back to drinking, you may have a brand-new perspective.

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Know When You Need Professional Help

If you drink heavily every day (remember: more than four drinks for men or three for women), talk to your healthcare provider before taking a break from alcohol. You might need a prescription for several days of a low-dose anticonvulsant drug (benzodiazepines) to help prevent withdrawal symptoms. Signs of alcohol withdrawal may include insomnia, agitation, irritability, nausea, night sweats, hand tremors, and even seizures and hallucinations. Be honest with yourself—and your doctor!—about the possible health effects of going cold turkey.

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Get Support and Be Kind to Yourself

Alcoholics Anonymous has shown the importance of peer support when it comes to quitting drinking. The same goes for moderating, says Reid. Share your goals with a partner or friend who can hold you accountable. Join a group, even a virtual one, like the MM community. Learning to be compassionate and patient with ourselves is also a huge part of controlling drinking. “Shame often leads to increased drinking,” says Reid. “Slip-ups will happen and as long as we contain them and do not become a danger to ourselves or others, we can learn from them.”

Patty Onderko
Meet Our Writer
Patty Onderko

Patty Onderko is a writer and editor who has covered health, parenting, psychology, travel, and more for more than 20 years. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her wife and two sons.