Considering Your Progress in Moderating Your Drinking: What if Moderation isn’t Working for You?

This is the last of a series of posts on moderate drinking. If you’ve come here after searching on this issue, it’s likely that you’re wondering about your drinking and whether or not you should cut back to reduce alcohol-related problems or risks for problems. If you’ve not read the previous post I recommend doing so as they build on each other.

The first post covered definitions of moderate drinking based on solid empirical research over the years. It also addressed instances where moderate drinking or a goal of pursuing moderate drinking could be hazardous to your health and well-being. If you haven’t yet read it, we recommend that you do so first. Here’s a link to it.

The second post focused on what’s really the first step or question to answer about your drinking? Would it be a good thing for me to change it?

The third gives you a way to compare different kinds of alcohol and encourages you to use a standard drink (Standard Ethanol Content or SEC to use research terms) and gives you a calculator so you can see just how much alcohol is in different drinks.

The fourth post addresses your chances of success in cutting back.

The fifth post cover concrete steps to take in cutting back on your drinking.

Achieving or Maintaining Moderate Drinking

This post is for those who have been working to cut back on their drinking and are not making the progress they’d hoped for. And wondering whether abstinence may be a better goal. Are you having difficulty achieving or maintaining moderation?

Tips for Making a Decision to Change Your Drinking Goals

Deciding to abstain is a decision that only you can make.

  • If you’re undecided, consider talking with others: supportive friends; family members who genuinely care about you; members of Moderation Management; your doctor; and/or your therapist (if you’re seeing one). Try to find someone with whom you can talk about how you’re feeling about this. Find someone who’s not going to be judgmental or try to push you one way or the other.
  • You might also consider seeing a therapist who specializes in Motivational Interviewing (MI). MI is a client-centered counseling approach that is effective in helping people resolve their mixed feelings about changing their drinking. Here is a “Find a Therapist” search engine to help you find someone in your area ABCT’s Find A CBT Therapist. Another option is to locate an MI trainer and ask him or her to recommend a therapist. MI therapists are most likely to be open to discussing your goals and challenges to achieving them.

How You Think about Changing Affects How You Feel About It

We invite you to consider a decision to abstain as a positive step towards resolving your alcohol-related problems instead of it being a failure at moderation. And getting rid of alcohol-related problems is why most people decide to change their drinking in the first place. So if Plan A (moderation) isn’t working for you, try Plan B (not drinking). You can even see not drinking as the ultimate form of moderation! Also many people who do successfully cut back eventually stop drinking entirely anyway. For many it’s easier and they just lose interest in what alcohol does for them.

Trying Out a Goal of Abstaining

You do not need to make a life-long commitment to abstaining. Short-term goals can be helpful. You can choose to not drink for a day at a time, a week at a time, or a month at a time. It’s up to you. Many people who decide to abstain focus on doing it one day at a time. It’s a more manageable bit of time and can help you from being overwhelmed. Get through today without drinking and deal with tomorrow tomorrow.

So, as a next step you could consider “doing a 30”. This means taking a clean break from drinking for 30 days. (And if 30 days seems unrealistic to you, consider 15, or 10, or 7.) What, you say, what’s that got to do with drinking moderately? The answer is that for many people, especially those who drink daily, drinking is a well-engrained habit. And one powerful way to break a habit is to avoid it entirely for a period of time. Psychologists call this “breaking the behavioral chain.”

Advantages of a Trial Period of Staying Sober

There are other good reasons to take a break.

  • Doing so reduces your tolerance (a good thing) so that when you do resume drinking you’ll feel the effects of alcohol at lower blood alcohol levels.
  • Not drinking for a while can free up your time that you can use to enjoy other activities that you enjoy or used to enjoy, or have wondered about trying but haven’t taken the time.
  • One way to moderate drinking is to not drink every day. So this gives you a head start with that.
  • While it may seem scary to consider not drinking for a while, you might discover, as many people do, that they enjoy feeling better, sleeping better, having more free time, and decide to continue with not drinking at all.

Keep Your Eye on the Big Picture

Remember, your ultimate goal is to reduce or rid yourself of alcohol-related problems or risks. And not drinking is just as valid a way of getting there as moderate drinking. There is no shame in switching goals and it can be liberating. So why not give it a try?

Getting By with a Little Help from Friends

A final note on considering abstinence. Many people on the Moderation Management mutual support group site have chosen this route and are given support from others in that community. And an alternative is SMART Recovery that is abstinence focused and uses cognitive behavioral strategies in their 4 point program.


About the Author

Dr. Reid K. Hester, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, researcher, and the Co-Founder of CheckUp & Choices, serving as the Director of its Research Division.

Dr. Hester has published over 60 journal articles on the topic of substance misuse and digital interventions including in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, the Journal of Medical Internet Research, and The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.

A leader in his field, Dr. Hester is one of the nation’s most sought-after substance misuse experts. His opinions, online resources and research have been featured in The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Vogue, and Men’s Health among others

Dr. Hester received his masters and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the Washington State University in 1979.