Dry January: The Good, The Bad, and The In-Between

Amy Bridges
A postcard saying "Dry January" propped up next to a wooden calendar

Dry January is a social movement during which people stop drinking alcohol for the month of January. While this idea has been around for decades, it was made official in 2014 by Alcohol Change UK, a nonprofit focused on reducing harm from alcohol. The idea behind this sobriety challenge is that without alcohol you will “sleep better and have more energy, improve your mental health and concentration, look fabulous and get brighter skin, save money and feel an amazing sense of achievement.”

Dry January comes on the heels of the holiday season during which there’s a spike in alcohol consumption. Participants usually incorporate Dry January into their resolutions to make positive physical and mental changes in the new year.

How can Dry January be beneficial?

For people who drink socially and moderately (and do not have substance use disorder), Dry January can be a nice way to jumpstart a healthy lifestyle in the new year. Steps to drink less are usually associated with eating better, exercising more, and spending time with family. 

As the popularity of sobriety challenges like Dry January increase, acceptance of non-drinkers increases, too. For people struggling with addiction, it can be very triggering to justify their abstinence in a social setting.  When more people say “no, thanks” to alcohol without explanation, it removes the pressure of disclosing private information about addiction which can be very stigmatizing.

Dry January can also allow moderate drinkers to explore their relationship with alcohol by focusing on the benefits of abstinence instead of the downfall of consumption. Rather than stopping because “drinking is bad for you”, approaching a sobriety challenge with a focus on the positive benefits can allow people to understand their own patterns without judgment.

How can Dry January be harmful?

For people for whom drinking has become a problem, quitting for a short period of time can mask a real issue. The accomplishment of succeeding at a sobriety challenge leads some folks to dismiss warning signs of alcoholism. They may be thinking, “I quit for a whole month – I don’t struggle with addiction,” when in reality, they do.

Dry January also inadvertently reinforces the stigmatizing belief that quitting drinking is an easy accomplishment and therefore anyone who drinks despite negative consequences is making a choice to do so. Most people struggling with addiction cannot stop using by themselves.  Addiction is a disease, not a choice. We should be careful that Dry January doesn’t undermine this fact.

When people who are casual or moderate drinkers take part in a sober challenge like Dry January but fail, there are rarely any big consequences. Their egos might be bruised, but many are likely to return to drinking without a problem. This simply isn’t possible for people with SUD – if they attempt to stop drinking but aren’t successful, there can be some very harmful consequences. Some people who are physically addicted to alcohol cannot "just stop." In some cases, they can go into fatal detox if they completely stop consuming alcohol. 

Lastly,  Dry January reinforces the chasm between people with SUD and those without, and creates one more way that people in active addiction or recovery are considered “other” or “less than” As Elizabeth, a marketing exec with nine years of recovery, says, “Dry January seems like one more club I can’t be part of. I can’t hang out in a bar drinking with people, and now I can’t hang out and do Dry January either.”  This loss of connection with people they interact with keeps people separated and stigmatized. 

While Dry January does have the power to do some good, it also simplifies a complex, nuanced issue. While some people may experience positive effects after participating in Dry January, it can be seriously detrimental to others. Please take a moment to consider your relationship to alcohol before participating in this trend and know it’s not for everyone.

*This article has been updated to include information regarding withdrawal.

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