Can I Learn to Cut Back and What Might My Chances of Success Be?

This is the fourth in a series of blogs on moderate drinking. The first covered definitions of moderate drinking based on years of solid empirical research. 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. 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 for it. This fourth post is below. The fifth post cover concrete steps to take in cutting back on your drinking. The sixth post discusses your options if efforts to cut back on your drinking aren’t working for you.

Chances of Success with Cutting Back

To get started, here’s a short questionnaire for you to answer. When you do, we’ll give you objective feedback about your chances of success. The feedback is based on a long-term follow-up (2-8 years) of randomized clinical trials our colleagues at The University of New Mexico conducted with a moderate drinking protocol, behavioral self-control training, a well validated protocol with many randomized clinical trials supporting its effectiveness.
Now that you have your personalized feedback based on solid research, what are the next steps? First, is the decision I mentioned earlier. Is it time for you to make a change in your drinking? If the answer is yes, then here’s the next question:

Should I choose moderation or abstinence?

With this feedback above, you can now make an informed decision. And remember, only you can make that decision. Also keep in mind the cautions I discussed in the prior blog that we recommend you take into account when choosing a goal of change:
  • If you’ve had significant alcohol-related problems and are currently not drinking, trying moderate drinking may put you at risk again for alcohol-related problems.
  • If you’re currently drinking more than the guidelines of moderation, you will reduce your risk for problems by cutting back.
  • Any drinking may be risky and could affect your health if any of the following are true.
  • If you are under the care of a doctor for a health problem (e.g., hypertension) or if you have a history of health problems. If so, consider talking to your doctor about your interest in cutting back on your drinking.
  • If you are taking any medications or supplements. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has published a brochure on alcohol/medication interactions that we recommend you look at.
  • There is no known safe level of drinking if you are pregnant.
  • If you are on probation any drinking can be a violation of your probation.
  • If any drinking will likely lead to problems in your relationships with others (e.g., your partner).
  • There is no safe level of drinking and driving. ANY alcohol in your system affects your ability to drive. We can’t emphasize this enough.
  • If you are under 21, any drinking is illegal. Many states have no tolerance for underage drinking and driving.
  • If you mix alcohol and drugs. If you are considering stopping your drug use, any alcohol in your system can affect your ability to stay away from drugs.
If you decide moderate drinking is a goal you’re going to work on, I recommend using strategies that have good support in the clinical research literature like Behavioral Self-Control Training (BSCT). My research team and I as well as many other clinical researchers in our field have been evaluating this moderate drinking protocol for decades now and it consistently demonstrates effectiveness. For most that is.

Who is most likely to benefit from moderation-focused alcohol treatment?

The answer to this has been consistent now for decades or research. People who have a shorter history of alcohol problems and less severe problems overall have the best chances of success using moderation to reduce their alcohol-related problems. That’s not to say that drinkers with more severe problems cannot cut back and be successful. And some do. It’s just that the chances of success in getting rid of alcohol-related problems goes down as one’s alcohol problem severity increases. And people at the more severe end of the spectrum often laugh at the definition of moderate drinking as they consider it so little, why bother? They also often find it easier to stop completely rather than having to stop after one or two drinks.

Success in reducing alcohol

As for how to change your drinking, you also have a number of choices. You could:
  • Change on your own without any help from others
  • Change with the help of mutual support organizations (like Moderation Management, SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, and AA)
  • Change with a self-directed digital tool like our moderate and abstain programs
  • Change with the help of a psychologist, counselor, or other therapist
  • Change with the help of a substance abuse disorder treatment program.
People often combine these strategies that meet their needs. The rely on the mutual support groups who are supportive of their efforts to change as well as us a digital tool and/or see a counselor or therapist. An important thing to keep in mind is that many people over the years have changed their drinking and often on their own. At the same time, it is not an admission of weakness to admit that you could benefit from some degree of help. And if you persist in changing your drinking, you can make progress. The outlook is hopeful.

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. Reid K. Hester, Ph.D.

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.