Mindful drinking sounds like a party pooper’s mantra. But as Vanessa Chalmers found out during Dry January, if you’re serious about kicking a bad boozing habit, for some it’s more realistic than going sober
‘What is your goal?’ The question was posed to me by a personal trainer at my gym, who I only know as ‘Mark’. I had been moaning I was seeing no results despite spending 6-8 hours at the gym a week. I whipped out my phone and showed him one of my favourite healthy Instagrammers @malinbjork. ‘Do you know how many women are following someone on Instagram who they believe they can look like?’ Mark said as he rolled his eyes. After we talked about my lifestyle habits at length, his verdict was: ‘you can do all the work you like at the gym, but you won’t get anywhere if you are drinking as much alcohol as you do.’
A year on and I still hadn’t seen a huge amount of progression in my fitness levels, despite always learning new healthy living hacks. Have I stopped drinking? Hell no. Alcohol is the centre of my social life. My weekends don’t revolve around seeing my friends, or having a dance, or meeting a new guy. That all comes secondary to what is really on my mind – a bottle of wine at the end of a gruelling week. It has been this way since I was a teenager at school, progressively becoming more pivotal to my happiness as I got older.
I took on Dry January to see if I could change my drinking habits for good, without having to succumb to a hermit life
I am fully aware that without alcohol, there is a chance I would be in better shape (if I put the hard work in too). This is because alcohol hinders weight loss, not only because of the extra calories, sugar and cheeky kebab involved in a big night out, but because it is the first thing your body turns to for fuel. ‘Alcohol, whenever taken in, is the first fuel to burn. While that’s going on, your body will not burn fat. This does not stop the weight loss, it simply postpones it’, Body Building reports.
Trying out the new Mindful Drinking
I did not, however, take on the Dry January challenge for ‘a health kick’. This was about changing my drinking habits for good, without having to succumb to a hermit life. One and a half million other Londoners are already drinking moderately, and ‘mindful drinking’ – that’s drinking smarter, slower and less rather than not at all – is predicted to be a trend of 2017. This is according to Club Soda, who encourage non-drinkers to keep social by providing a guide (Club Soda Guide) of London venues with low or no-alcohol options. Their website lists 200 pubs and bars in Hackney and City alone, all rated out of five according to how good they are at accommodating, what they claim is 30 per cent of their customers who won’t be drinking (at any given venue).
I am allowing myself to drink on 15 days of the 365 day year
I went on one of Club Soda’s new Mindful Bar Crawls in Shoreditch. Here, I met Sophie, 31, whose mindful drinking plan allows her to drink on 15 allocated days of the year – her best friend’s wedding, for example. ‘For me, it’s the first steps to cutting down to very little alcohol,’ she said. ‘It’s too daunting to stop for good right now,’ she continued as we sipped delicious mocktails in Zigfrid von Underbelly, Hoxton. ‘I want to be in control, and be mindful about what I really want. I used to be a huge binge drinker, but there is a difference between getting tipsy or forgetting how you got home, and it ruining relationships with people’, Sophie confides in me. ‘I have been out with friends, and someone has told me something really personal, and I haven’t remembered it the next morning. I just realised that can’t happen anymore. Who knows what else I have missed?’
I once woke up to find I couldn’t walk – I had torn the ligaments in my knee and had absolutely no recollection of how
Similarly, to Sophie, the presence of alcohol in my life was making me pretty miserable at times, and not only because it was standing in the way of my six pack (note – I am nowhere near close to a six pack). I had noticed that my drinking habits had become unhealthy when I was relying on drink as an escapism from ‘the real world’, and something to give me a short-term buzz of happiness. I’m sure you know what follows – a roaring hangover, unhealthy food all day, and a negative outlook on the upcoming week. Or more disappointingly, waking up with my head in the toilet, my phone missing from my clutch bag (on two occasions), or to find I cannot walk. Yes, I have woken to my knee the size of a football, with no recollection of what happened the night before. All I had was a foggy story of ‘stumbling off a curb’ from a friend and the support of crutches for four weeks (that also meant I couldn’t work). Embarrassingly, a knee injury is twice on my medical records with ‘drunken accident’, the first being from a awkward cartwheel at a festival which left me tent-bound for two days.
Alcohol has become a habit rather than a pleasure, with women having wine o’clock most nights of the week
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a self-proclaiming alcoholic. But by no means is my relationship with booze positive. Generally, women’s drinking has increased gradually since the 1950s. Major global research conducted on four million adults, published in the British Medical Journal , has shown that in the past, men were twice as likely as women to drink alcohol and three times as likely to do so at a harmful level. Now, we are out-drinking men. ‘Because alcohol is so cheap and easily available it’s become an everyday grocery item’, Emily Robinson from Alcohol Concern said about the research. ‘People often don’t realise that alcohol has become a habit rather than a pleasure, with women having wine o’clock most nights of the week’.
In the past, men were twice as likely as women to drink alcohol and three times as likely to do so at a harmful level. Now, we are out-drinking men
The psychology behind reaching for the bottle
Personally, I tend to stay sober all week then have a huge binge at the weekend. Tipple after tipple would be my reward for all my hard work during the week. This is a habit, Georgia Foster, a hypnotherapist with expertise in alcoholism, says during my hypnotherapy session at the beginning of January. She calls those between sober and alcoholic ‘problem drinkers’, and she explains the psychology behind a very common way of thinking. ‘We all have a negative inner critic voice. When hungover, it will tell you off for drinking for what you did, said, how much you spent and what you don’t remember.
When an anxious person drinks, the negative part of the brain shuts down. You tend to go to the front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, where you feel calm and relaxed
‘This ironically makes us drink more. Because what neuroscientists know, is that when an anxious person drinks, the negative part of the brain shuts down. You tend to go to the front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, where you feel calm and relaxed. We get hooked into what it gives us. It’s not the alcohol itself, but the feelings we can escape from. However, when you wake up with a hangover, the inner critic wakes up too, and will bully you for what you did. Because the inner critic voice can be so powerful, the person will again begin to feel anxious and vulnerable, and turn to drink to get away from it. It’s a vicious circle’.
Because I am a perfectionist, I am an all-or-nothing person
Everything Georgia says in our session seems spot on, particularly when she points out that because I am a perfectionist, I am an all-or-nothing type person. Shamefully, one of my biggest mottos is ‘go hard or go home’. ‘We need to make your mind more perfect about balance’, says Georgia. ‘Building up your sober self-esteem is really important, and getting you in a more intuitive space – feeling confident, good about yourself, and relaxed’. It sounded more complex than I ever had imagined. But Georgia sends me away with a recording to listen to every night during January following the session.
Mindfully drinking after my Dry January journey
It’s now the 1st of February, and I wish I could tell you that this month was an eye opening miracle, that I am a changed person – slimmer, fresh feeling, and jumping off the walls with energy. Rather, I came to realise it didn’t completely shake up my world like I expected it to. Sure, there were really tough times, such as being invited to Facebook events to huge blow-out parties and not getting the buzz of excitement all week, or drinking orange juice at the pub whilst my girlfriends got blurry eyed. But I may just be reaching that intuitive space of inner confidence in my own decisions that Georgia Foster was talking about.
The weekends no longer flash by as a blackout memory from a nightclub
It was the small and hardly noticeable benefits I have come by have made it worthwhile. I haven’t had a cigarette for a month (I was a social smoker, or I can now say a ‘drinking smoker’). I have started experimenting with cooking again, and if I eat a cheat meal, it’s been because I felt I truly deserved it, rather than stuffing my face with a takeaway the day after a heavy session. I have so much more time. Sometimes I get bored, but I can make plans for the weekends in advance, knowing I won’t be hungover. January was a long month, but the weekends no longer flash by as a blackout memory from a nightclub like they used to. I feel the urge to go for a jog when I was feel stressed, rather than chucking back rose.
Healthy non drinking customers need to be a bit more demanding of pubs
Moving forward, mindfully drinking during these situations is something I can work towards. Club Soda is described as the ‘weight watchers for boozers’ by the founder Laura Willoughby. ‘I want the healthy customers [non-drinkers] to be a bit more demanding of pubs and to be treated as equally as drinkers. We love to socialise, we still like being with our friends. But some night you just want a ginger beer rather than loads of pints’. For me, mindful drinking (I hope) will mean drinking for enjoyment and socialising with friends, rather than having a competition with myself to see how quickly I can get legless. Georgia reminds me it’s fine to be hungover and have one too many, but it’s also fine to call it a day when you’ve had enough. The month has certainly given me more time to myself, where I have reflected on what makes me feel good, and that doesn’t mean throwing out the booze.
Here are seven mindful drinking tips from Club Soda for your next night out to help you on your way to creating a better relationship with booze:
THE SEVEN MINDFUL DRINKING HABITS
- PLAN AHEAD
Just winging it and mindfulness don’t go so well together. So take your time and plan, plan, plan. Look for pubs and bars with great low and no alcohol drinks, so that you can choose to drink or not to drink. Tweet or call the venues in advance and ask about their choice, or find a new local that cares about you and what you want to drink.
- DON’T PANIC AT THE BAR
“Erm, erm, erm! White wine!” Stay strong at the bar. Don’t let a flash of indecision make you fall back on ‘the usual’. Take your time. Stay mindful. Chat to the bar staff about what you want to drink, and what they have on offer. Many of them will love the challenge of whipping you up a mocktail.
There are plenty of people who never drink and who are cutting down (one in five people, actually). So you can take a few minutes to decide on your order.
- FAKE IT IF YOU HAVE TO
Sometimes you just don’t want another boring conversation about why you are not having a ‘proper’ drink. So fly below the radar. Here are three sneaky tips:
- Arrange a ‘usual’ with the bar staff They love helping you fake a Gin and Tonic (aka a Tonic & Tonic, or T&T) or putting a fizzy elderflower in a dressed up champagne glass.
- The never-ending shandy Start with the lowest alcohol beer you can find, and just keep topping it up with lemonade or soda at each round.
- Pimp your water Not sure if the pub you’re going to has something you like? Smuggle in a bottle of your favourite cordial and pimp your fizzy water all night
- ASSESS YOUR MOOD BEFORE ACTING
Drinking when you’re happy can be great. But drinking when you’re lonely, tired and emotional? You know how that ends, probably not a good idea… Rather than add a hangover to your problems, face them head on. You’ll thank yourself in the long run.
Think ‘HALT’: am I Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? or Thirsty? If you are any of these things, do something about that first, rather than try to hide it with a drink. Listen to what your body really needs.
- STICK TO YOUR GUNS
Make your decision, put it into words, and practice saying it out loud. For example: “I have decided not to drink tonight, as I’m saving myself for the weekend.”
If your friends try to bully you into drinking, shift the spotlight onto them. Ask them something. How was their day? What’s the best cat meme they’ve seen on Facebook? Just move the discussion away from your drinking choices and onto something else.
Remember, you don’t need anyone’s permission to make a decision that is right for you. No one has the right to persuade you otherwise.
- THERE’S SAFETY IN NUMBERS
Everyone else is drinking, right? Well, not really. When you start to look around, you realise just how many people aren’t actually drinking. Your pregnant friend, your friend on a health kick, your Muslim friend, and even your friend who just had too much last night and is nursing a wicked hangover. Seek them out, and go out together. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a crowd of people drinking alcohol, a crowd of your own can really help.
- BE AN ACTIVE CUSTOMER
If we want our pubs to stay on the high street, we need to stay friends with them. We want them to stock a great tipple; they want to know what drinks will keep you coming back. So ask them to stock your favourite non-alcoholic beers or craft sodas. Before they know it, those non-alcoholic drinks will be flying off the shelves.