Improving health is a popular goal for New Year’s resolutions. While it’s admirable to go into the new year with the intention of completely transforming your life, it is not always a sustainable approach.
Because you got some benefit out of the behavior you’re trying to change, it may be hard to adjust to its loss. (An example: on balance, smoking is bad for your health, but it can provide stress relief.). It may be helpful to think of behavior change in short periods. That brings us to Dry January, a campaign that challenges people to abstain from alcohol for one month. Coming off the holiday season celebrations, it can be helpful to give your body a reset.
College students (or really all people) may choose to drink for many reasons, like socialization, destressing, wanting to fit in, believing it is part of the university (or human) experience, or simply just for fun.
However, there can be times when benefits from alcohol decrease, and we are more exposed to harms. This can look like blackouts, hospital transports, frequent hangovers, gastrointestinal issues like heartburn/acid reflux, or arguments with friends.
According to the Spring 2023 Maryland Collaborative College Alcohol Survey, 11% of Hopkins undergraduates wanted to or had tried to cut down on their drinking or other substance use. There are benefits from making different choices around alcohol, by either abstaining or greatly reducing your intake. (You get the maximum benefit if you abstain entirely.) If you do choose to take a pause, you may see improvements in:
Sleep quality. Having a hangover can make starting the day harder, giving you less time and energy to enjoy recreational activities or to fulfill responsibilities. While alcohol can help you fall asleep, it shortens the amount of time you spend in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the deep restorative rest that you need. As little as one drink can decrease your sleep quality by almost 10%.
Academic performance. One study found that skipping class was the mediating factor in the negative relationship between students’ alcohol use and lower GPA. This means that students who drank to the point where they had to skip class were more likely to have lower grades.
Mental health. Some people use alcohol to cope with mental health symptoms, but it can make things worse. From the Fall 2022 NCHA Survey, students who had higher alcohol use risk levels were more likely to be in psychological distress. Dopamine, the reward and motivation neurotransmitter, is released when people drink alcohol, making them want to drink it more and more. Eventually the body of an often-drunk person doesn’t produce its own dopamine, so when they stop drinking, the lack of it can make them feel worse. Alcohol also impacts the release of serotonin, which plays a role in sleep, mood, and hunger. Issues with sleep, increased or decreased appetite, and low mood are some of the symptoms of depression. As a depressant, alcohol may reduce feelings of anxiety. (Think of the initial buzz of a first drink.) But with continued use, feelings of anxiety can become stronger during the times when you aren’t drinking. Additionally, some people can experience “hangxiety,” a rebound of anxiety and depression after a night of drinking.
Spending money. If you bought gifts this holiday season, your wallet could probably use a break. Whether you’re chipping in for a bottle, paying a cover, or ordering ride shares, alcohol and other unintended costs can add up. That extra money from taking a Dry January could look like a trip to DC, a night at the movies, or food delivery on a day you don’t feel like cooking or going to the dining hall.
Hydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it makes you urinate more often, which flushes out water and nutrients. Having fewer drinks can increase hydration, which improves hair, oral health, and overall energy levels. Frequent drinking can cause bigger issues related to dehydration, like fatigue, irritability, and headaches.
With those potential benefits in mind, here are some tips for having a successful Dry January, or enacting any kind of New Year’s resolution.
Approach it with curiosity, not dread.
Mindset can be everything. Don’t think about it as something you HAVE to do, but something you GET to do. Remember doing this challenge does not mean you have to perfectly abide by this behavior for the rest of your life. Whether you are participating in Dry January or trying to eat healthier, don’t think of it as “I’ll never have another drink again,” or “I can never have another four cheese and garlic pizza pie from HomeSlyce.” Instead, save yourself some mental load and stress by thinking ahead only to the immediate future.
Mistakes happen; give yourself a break.
One beer or an extra hour of social media past your limit does not mean you failed. A slip-up here or there is normal, even for the most dedicated of us. If it happens, reflect on it and try to understand why you fell back on a certain behavior to get yourself back on track. An example: do you mostly socialize with friends when you choose to use alcohol, so you feel lonely without it? If so, explore other avenues of connection and community.
Gather social support.
Tell your friends your goals to have someone help you stay accountable or share any struggles. Friends can also be a source of good-natured competition; you can help motivate each other to stay on track with your goals. If your friends are not participating in Dry January and you aren’t sure how to ask for support, you can try these examples:
“Hey, I’m trying out this Dry January thing, just wanted to see what it was about. Can you check in with me every week or so to help me stay accountable?”
“I have a bet with my buddy that I can make it to the end of the month without a drink. Help me win the bet. Dinner’s on me if I do.”
Put some tools in your tool kit.
If you are committed to seeing a big change through, using tools to help you achieve your goal can make things easier. Write things out in a planner, get an accountability buddy, and have an app to help you stay on track. There are different apps for Dry January to help you stick with the challenge, like the Try Dry app. You can also use one of the free and confidential programs available to students. The Alcohol E-Checkup to Go tool can paint a detailed picture to help you understand your choices and your unique patterns, which can help you stay on track with the challenge. The Office of Health Promotion & Well-Being also offers Motivational Interviews, which are confidential sessions with a staffer to discuss current alcohol use and potential behavior changes.
Meet yourself in the middle.
Above all, Dry January and similar periods of change invite us to be more mindful about our behaviors and to take a balanced approach. You can weigh the new pros against the old pros, and potentially find a happier medium if you don’t want to change your behaviors entirely.