Drinking cues: What are they and why do they matter?

January 2024 | 8 minutes

Does the clink of ice in a glass make you want to have a drink? What about tucking in your little ones at bedtime and knowing you finally have time to yourself for a glass of wine or a beer? This might be your experience of a drinking cue.

What is a drinking cue?

A drinking cue could be a smell, a sound, or even just a moment in time (such as the arrival of the weekend) that you often subconsciously associate with drinking. Drinking cues can be very personal and are often subtle and unavoidable parts of everyday life. But that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable that you’ll drink when you encounter one.

How do I identify my cues?

This can be easier during a dry month because instead of going about your usual business, you’ll likely be trying to resist the urge to drink when those moments arise.

Observe

  • If that sounds like you, then why not take this opportunity to closely observe the moments when you feel the urge to drink. Look around you when this happens and take stock. Are there any patterns you can find? Maybe you’re noticing your cravings at a particular time of day or night. Take time to think about what you’ve been doing just before you’ve experienced the feeling to drink. Were you just about to settle down for an evening in front of the telly? Were you walking past a busy bar or pub? Maybe the clock struck a particular time? It’s worth saying that even if you’re uncomfortable with what you’re noticing, try not to place any judgement on your cues. We’re all different and there will likely be many different reasons for why the association has developed.

Make a note

  • As you notice your cues, note them down using a piece of paper, your phone, or if you’re using Try Dry®, check out the confidential ‘Notes’ section. As drinking cues can be subtle, having them captured ready to refer back to could be helpful as you progress through your challenge.

Why does it matter whether or not I know my cues?

As we’ve mentioned, you may subconsciously associate your cues with drinking alcohol. So if you’re not aware of them, it could be easy for them to creep up on you and jeopardise your progress. Once you know your cues, no matter how inevitable they may seem, you can start to have power over them and take steps towards changing your behaviour.

What strategies can I put in place to work around my cues once I know them?

Once you’ve spent some time getting to know your drinking cues you can switch up your routine to counteract them. For example, if hearing the buzz and chatter of people outside your favourite pub is hard to resist, make a note of what alcohol-free alternative you can order instead. We’ve heard of some locals stocking alcohol-free options specifically for their regular customers, so why not talk to the bar staff and see if they’d stock a good alternative? If going into the pub feels too much too soon, then working through that urge to go in will help to weaken that association over time. You can do this by delaying your decision to act on the thought by 30 minutes. Keep walking and check in on how you feel after that time has passed. Keep delaying your decision until the urge has passed.

Maybe your child’s bedtime is one of your drinking cues. Could you start making an evening ritual of relaxing herbal teas before you settle down for the evening instead of reaching for a glass? Many people find substituting an alcohol-free drink into their evening routine works well for those days where the urge is strongest. Have an alcohol-free alternative ready in the fridge to make the option easier to choose in the moment.

Preparing dinner can be filled with cues. If you find yourself automatically reaching for the glass, a simple trick can be to move your glasses to another location. This gives you the added bonus of identifying your cues, so when you automatically reach for the cupboard stop and observe what led to that action. It also allows you time to step back, see the cue response in action and give yourself an opportunity to do something differently.

Be patient and kind to yourself!

It may take a while for cues to become less powerful. Research shows that this can take as long as 12 months after making a change, but be patient and kind to yourself as you follow the steps above to counteract your cues. Take some time to explore your cues and feel free to get creative! Try to employ strategies that support your wellbeing and that feel achievable. Trying out different strategies like the ones above will get you on the right path to finding those effective workarounds, and will support your overarching goal of resetting your relationship alcohol.