In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth leaders, Reneé Breazeale, administrator of the Texas Health Recovery and Wellness Center, discusses how participating in Dry January can affect a person’s mental health. This is Part 2 of a mini-series of audio conversations about Dry January. You can listen to Part 1 here.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Alexis Allison: In case people didn’t hear Part 1 of this mini-series, can you tell us what Dry January is?
Reneé Breazeale: It is a social phenomenon where folks decide that, for the month of January, they will choose not to drink as a part of starting the new year healthier. And so it became a trend several years ago, and it continues on. I find it really very interesting because it does align with “new year, new you” concepts. I can’t say specifically who birthed it, but I do think it’s kind of brilliant.
Allison: Well, I’m curious if you could tell us a little bit about how alcohol affects a person’s mental health.
Breazeale: For so many of us, when we’re introduced to alcohol, we’re usually introduced in a social setting: A glass of champagne with the family at Christmas dinner, or a glass of wine, or maybe a beer at a crawfish boil for those of us who are from the South. So typically, it’s social. One of the things that sometimes happens, though, is that people discover that the alcohol can help heal pain, feel better, maybe not feel as sad and then they begin to use alcohol differently. It moves from a social (experience) into a coping mechanism.
That isn’t the same path for everyone. There could be someone who drinks socially without a problem for many, many years. We’re starting to see this in our geriatric population: They lose a spouse, and they’re alone and they’re 70. Their family’s not around them, and all of a sudden, they find themselves drinking more to potentially cope with the loneliness.
Everybody’s journey with alcohol looks a little different. It depends on our life circumstances, our coping skills and what our needs are and if our needs are being met in other ways. If they’re not, alcohol can become a very easy means of addressing some needs and feelings.
Allison: You mentioned alcohol being sort of a balm for pain, but it’s also my understanding that it’s a depressant. Can you talk about what that means?
Breazeale: Alcohol is actually a central nervous system depressant. What that means is that it actually numbs those emotions and those feelings, which is why it’s attractive to a lot of folks, right? Even if it’s just for a minute, you feel a little bit better. However, over time, with the increasing use of alcohol as a coping mechanism, the central nervous system begins to believe that that’s normal, and that our natural resting state has a percentage of alcohol in it.
And so then, when we don’t have the alcohol, we are put into this position physiologically and emotionally of maybe not knowing how to manage that. So over time, it actually increases depressive symptoms, as well as decreases existing coping skills that you might have had prior to introducing alcohol.
Allison: So then, if someone were to stop suddenly for Dry January, how might it affect their mental health?
Breazeale: For some folks, it may actually put them into a depressive state. For some folks, it may increase their anxiety, it may increase social isolation. It could increase social awkwardness; the ability to have conversations that are socially appropriate without alcohol can become kind of difficult because, as I mentioned, you decrease your coping skills.
If in the past, you were really great at asking for help and identifying needs and feelings, but over time, alcohol has become your primary means of coping with that, when you remove the alcohol, these skills that you haven’t used for months or even years are not readily available.
It then complicates the picture even further, because now you have a person who may be experiencing increased depression, increased anxiety, maybe increased social isolation and now the coping skills that they once had are not as well defined and accessible. And so that can really lead someone into a spiral where they come into a mental health or emotional crisis.
Allison: We’re now several days into January, and if there’s a person who’s listening, who has decided to participate in Dry January, but they may be experiencing some of the consequences that you just referenced, what would you recommend they do?
Breazeale: I absolutely encourage anyone who thinks they may have a problem or just feels like they’re not coping well, to reach out to a mental health professional. I mean, at the end of the day, what we do is just provide a safe space to talk about what’s happening. And maybe it’s really not an alcohol issue. Maybe alcohol has been medicating an anxiety issue for years. A mental health professional can help them sort through that, and come up with a plan that they feel comfortable with. And if they’re not comfortable reaching out to a mental health professional, certainly a clergy member or safe family (member), friend or someone in the community is definitely a step in the right direction.
Allison: For people who are interested either in doing Dry January in the future, or giving up alcohol at another point, what are some tips or best practices that you would give to them for doing so?
Breazeale: Well, there’s a lot of different strategies, right? A couple of strategies: One, make sure people around you know what you’re doing so they can provide support to you. And think about your social situations. If you hang out with your friends at a great pub down the street and that’s where you guys all collect, think about what you’re going to do when you’re at the pub. Are you going to ask for a soda? Are you going to drink water? Are you going to do a nonalcoholic beer? Think through that before you’re actually in the situation.
Also, if you’re really struggling, and not sure what step to take, stop and think about, emotionally, where are you? What’s the motivation for stopping drinking? Is it physical — I want to get healthy? I want a clear brain, I want to finish this plan that I have in place? Whatever it is, think about your motivation.
Again, it’s always great to have a buddy system. So maybe another friend could do it with you, or have someone in the community that really can support you and you can talk through those days when it’s been a really, really bad day at work. You’d really love a glass of wine, but you’ve opted not to, who do you talk to? So make sure you have a person that you can talk to.
For some people, it might be tapering down. Maybe they go out every weekend. Maybe they only go out two weekends, or they only drink two weekends of the four that they go out. So that’s also a very real strategy. In our world, we call it harm reduction. But in the real world, it’s just tapering down. So maybe decreasing how much you use and how often you use might be an easier segue into abstinence for some folks.
Allison: Is there anything else that you’d like to share? Anything else we should know?
Breazeale: Well, I think there’s a wonderful trend happening in society now about nonalcoholic bars. Where you can actually go to a place and they have all these lovely cocktails and drinks, but they’re nonalcoholic. And I think that’s a brilliant concept. I certainly encourage people to reach out whether you’re doing Dry January or not, give it a try. You might be surprised there’s something you like.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.