Common wisdom is that you should stay away from bars and parties when you stop drinking.
The thinking, which makes perfect logical sense on the surface, is that you don’t want to tempt yourself by going to a place where alcohol is readily available, and where you are in the habit of imbibing.
I think that wisdom is misguided and I will tell you why.
You Can’t Avoid Temptation
Temptation is everywhere. Whether you drink or not, unless you live under a rock or have only sober friends, family and coworkers, you will be placed in situations where alcohol flows freely.
Whether it’s a sporting event, birthday party, after-work get together or even an official work event, alcohol is so common in our society that it is impossible to avoid. And you wouldn’t want to.
Lots of the most fun places and activities have a bar or serve alcohol. Who wants to sit at home hiding just because they are afraid to turn down a drink?
Cutting out the people and places in your life that are sources of fun because you’ve stopped drinking only makes it more likely that you will decide that a sober lifestyle in untenable.
In the short term, the worst that can happen if you place yourself in a tempting situation is that you will succumb to the temptation and have a drink. If that happens, there’s always tomorrow to get right back up and recommit yourself to stopping drinking.
Having one drink in a moment of weakness is not an excuse to get wasted or go on a 7-day bender. One drink does not erase days, months or years of abstaining. You still have gotten all of the health benefits of being sober for all that time.
Stopping drinking all about changing your mindset about alcohol and adjusting your lifestyle to match. That’s why, in the long term, trying to avoid temptation can be dangerous. It will teach you that quitting alcohol also means killing your social life, avoiding your friends, and staying home more often.
This will contribute to those feelings that “quitting alcohol sucks” and make you much less likely to have long term success.
So you can’t entirely avoid temptation, and I would argue that placing yourself in tempting situations where you have to turn down alcohol will actually help you as well.
Train Yourself Using Stress
Most of us have spent our lives thinking of stress as a bad thing, something to avoid. And there is some truth to that — too much stress can have all kinds of negative impacts on our health.
But stress is also key to growth and heightened performance, according to Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness’ terrific book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout and Thrive with the New Science of Success.
Similarly to how, in order to grow muscle, weightlifters put their bodies under intense stress followed by rest, we can do the same with our minds. By putting ourselves in situations of temptation and refusing alcohol, we strengthen our ability to resist temptation.
So that next time we have to turn down a drink, it gets a little easier. And so on.
Stulberg and Magness go on to share that mindstate matters. If you view stress as something bad and try to avoid it, it will have a negative impact on your brain. If you view it as something useful that makes you stronger, it will help to fuel your performance and make you grow.
I think you can literally view this as an exercise regimen. Early on in your sober living journey, purposefully put yourself in positions where you know you will be tempted, like a get together with supportive friends or family where alcohol will be served.
Make sure that at least someone knows that you have given up drinking and will help you by providing support and not offering you a drink.
Come up with what you are going to say in advance, so you don’t have to think of something on the spot. Like, “Thanks, but I’m not drinking anymore for health reasons”. Or, you can go even more vague, “Thanks, but I’m holding off on drinking for now”.
Then, work your way up to more challenging situations, like drinks with your boss who always insists on buying rounds of shots, or hanging out at your old watering hole with your drinking buddies.
By the time you get to that point, it will be much easier to say no.
Rest Your Brain
Just as important as occasionally stressing your brain to strengthen your ability to turn down a drink is resting your brain.
Any athlete knows that rest and recovery is just as important as a workout. Your muscles don’t grow when you are lifting weights, rather they are intentionally stressed during weight lifting and growing during rest periods.
The same can be true for your brain.
Just as I suggest intentionally placing yourself into situations where you will be tempted by a drink and can practice resisting, sometimes you need to recognize that you’ve used your “resistance muscle” enough and need to give it a rest.
If you just spent two hours turning drinks down at a work party, maybe skip the after party, at least when you are first getting used to not drinking.
Or maybe call it a night a bit earlier than you normally would. As your body gets tired, so does your brain. So instead of staying out until 3am and closing down the bar, head home at 1. You’ll still have all the fun and you get to avoid seeing all of your friends get sloppy and annoying.
Willpower actually does have limits. In a 1996 experiment at Case Western University, Dr. Roy Baumeister tested this theory. He placed two groups of people in a room with plates of freshly baked cookies and plates of radishes. One group was instructed to eat only the radishes, the other was allowed to eat the cookies.
Immediately afterwards, both groups were asked to solve a puzzle that seemed simple but, in reality, was impossible to solve. The group that was forced to resist the cookies gave up in frustration significantly earlier than the group that was allowed to eat the chocolate chip cookies.
Humans have a finite capacity for resisting temptation. The more you are forced to say no without the opportunity to rest, the harder it becomes to resist.
So make sure you rest after stress!
Choosing the Right Time
You will eventually get used to turning down drinks. It will become second nature to you, and you will rarely even miss drinking.
The better you are at exercising your “resistance muscle”, the quicker this day will come.
That said, there are better moments than others to put yourself in places of temptation like bars and parties. The more tired you are physically and mentally, the harder it is to resist doing things that are bad for you.
This doesn’t just apply to drinking — it applies to dieting, decision making, and all other bad habits.
Listen to your body. If you are exhausted and stressed from a particularly trying day at the office, don’t go to happy hour. Go home and sleep!
Sometimes you can avoid being placed in situations where there will be lots of drinking going on. And that’s ok! If you have the right mindstate, you will be able to have fun, enjoy yourself, and keep from drinking.
But why make it hard than it has to be? Our bodies are incredibly powerful things, they tell us when they need a break.
When you stop drinking, you will reconnect with your body in so many exciting ways. Now that you aren’t regularly poisoning your body anymore, you can be friends again. When your friend asks for a break, give it to them.
Stopping drinking is about embracing life, not hiding from it. Most people don’t want to give up their friends and social lives. And you don’t have to! You can still have just as much, or more, fun on a night out without drinking as you would if you were still getting drunk.
And it’s a lot cheaper too!
You will also find that your life gets fuller. There are so many more activities available to you when you are of healthy mind and body, so you have more options. I’d predict that the nights out will get fewer and far between naturally, as you gravitate towards other activities. No need to force it.
By partnering with your brain and body, you will achieve so much more in your sober journey than you did when you were drinking.
Good luck, and have fun!