The spirit of December is an excessive one. No matter what you believe or how you choose to celebrate Christmas, this month you’ll probably spend significantly more than usual, eat a lot more pastry and stay up later. Your choice of knitwear will evolve from “comfortable and warm” to “anything with glitter, sequins or actual flashing lights, ideally something that can be seen from space”. Also, you’ll probably drink much more than usual. Office parties might begin with the most staid, sensible person in the building offering everyone a slightly warm prosecco at 10am. You’ll forgo your usual single, chilled glass of very dry white wine in favour of a mug of something that’s 40% proof and tastes like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. After a year of desk lunches and early dinners, everyone will suddenly decide that every meal must take place in a pub. You might have 11 months of birch water and Bikram in the bank, but you’ll struggle to resist the lure of mulled wine and chips with everything.
The idea of a big boozy month sounds enormously appealing when it’s started to get dark at three o’clock and you’re desperate for a bit of time off work. However, the festive season can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. Drinking to excess can exacerbate that anxiety. If you like to drink, choosing to enjoy alcohol in a more moderate way will benefit your body and your brain. But when everyone else is partying hard and the pressure is on to join them, how can you drink sensibly and stick to your limits?
Rosamund Dean’s new book, Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, is full of smart, resonant advice for enjoying alcohol without going overboard. Dean explains: “Alcohol is a drug – a hugely addictive one that is aggressively marketed at us as the cure for everything from loneliness to boredom. Unpicking your brain’s beliefs that alcohol is vital for celebration, socialising, stress-relief and relaxation is a process that won’t happen overnight.” She explains that the key to mindful drinking lies in preparing yourself to set a limit and stick to it. “You can’t rely on willpower alone to help you stick to one or two drinks when you go out. As soon as you’ve had one drink, your unconscious beliefs will override any good intentions. Having set-in-stone rules reduces your risk of making impulsive excuses for over-drinking. I go by the ‘rule of three’: I only allow myself to drink on three days of the week and, on the days that I do drink, I have no more than three drinks.”
However, regardless of how good your intentions are, there’s a risk that your friends might not respond positively to the goals you’ve set yourself. Dean says it’s best to get them on your side from the start, and ask them to support you in your quest for moderation. “Make sure your friends and family know how important their cheerleading is, and how grateful you are. One exception to this is your heaviest-drinking friends: telling them could make them feel bad about themselves and they may try to talk you out of it, or undermine your determination. With those people, try and change the situations where you see them: meet them during the day for lunch or coffee, or go to the cinema.” As well as asking friends for support, Dean monitors her drinking by using Drinkaware’s Track & Calculate Units app. “There are loads of apps for this or you can just note it down. It sounds crazy but monitoring what you drink does actually make you drink less – simply by bringing awareness to it.” Anyone who has used a diet app or fitness tracker will know that when we have to report our behaviour, we often moderate it, even if we’re only telling our phones about what we’ve been getting up to.
As well as discussing practical strategies for limiting our alcohol intake, Dean’s book explores the psychological and emotional issues that lie at the heart of our relationship with drinking. She believes that we need to think about the triggers that encourage us to drink, and most importantly of all, the impact alcohol has on our mental health and the way it makes us feel in the long term. She explains: “The reason I took so long to do something about the way I drank was because I believed the common misconception that there are alcoholics (people with a serious problem) and ‘normal’ drinkers – but nothing in between. I definitely drank too much in my teens and 20s, but I never had a ‘rock bottom’ moment. It was simply a drip-feed of realising how anxious and exhausted I felt after drinking, and noticing that the effects were starting to show in my skin and body.” Alcohol is loaded with sugar, which makes insulin levels spike and causes your body to produce enzymes which break down collagen and elastin. This is why our skin tends to look a little dull and flat come January.
We know that hangovers often lead to headaches, nausea and dehydration, but we don’t often discuss the emotional impact they have, and the feelings of depression and anxiety they engender. Dean explains that “alcohol artificially stimulates your brain’s reward centre by releasing dopamine, and a hangover is essentially the dopamine depletion of ‘coming down’ after drinking. In the long term, dopamine depletion is associated with everything from lack of concentration and forgetfulness to insomnia and full-on depression. Also, drinking alcohol disrupts your sleep, preventing your brain entering the deep, restorative levels of your sleep cycle, so you will feel exhausted the next day even if it wasn’t a late one.” Perhaps key to drinking mindfully at Christmas lies in focusing on the way we want to feel when the new year begins. Moderating our alcohol intake over December will allow us to start January feeling rested and ready to take on new goals and projects, instead of feeling low and exhausted.
Drinking more moderately is a long-term goal and it will take time to implement a brand new attitude to alcohol. Don’t be discouraged if you slip up during December. Dean says it’s easy to blame yourself for failing to meet your moderation goals, but it’s much more helpful to look at the events and emotions of the day that may have given you an urge to drink excessively. “Acknowledge those feelings to get to the root of them. Yes, this takes vigilance but, with practice and repetition, it will become second nature.” Trying to drink mindfully during the booziest month of the year is challenging, but embracing the challenge will lead you to a happier, healthier future.
Rosamund Dean’s book Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, is available from 28th December, published by Trapeze.