Putting your mental health first: why Dry January can be a step in the right direction

Mark Holmes | January 2024 | 9 minutes

In this blog, award-winning nurse and mental health and alcohol expert, Mark Holmes, sets out some of the ways in which an alcohol-free challenge like Dry January can have a positive impact on your mental health.

When you’re just starting out on your alcohol-free challenge, it’s possible you’ve found the first few days really tough. You may have started feeling physically different, but it’s also possible you’re becoming aware of urges to drink. Whatever form your triggers come in, it’s likely you’ll become more aware of them as your challenge continues and that can feel like a real stumbling block. So, if you’re looking for something to spur you on, read on for some of the great mental health benefits that could be coming your way as you progress through your Dry January or other alcohol-free challenge.

Think about your mental health as a bucket, and life stressors can fill it up. We want to stop the bucket from overflowing so we have a tap that we can turn on to release the building stress. The things you do to promote your mental health turn on the tap – for example exercise, being creative, getting in touch with nature.

Each time we turn on the tap we are doing something to promote our mental health. You may have been used to reaching for a drink to release that tap and relieve the building stress. But alcohol can actually increase that stress in your bucket. What will your alternative coping mechanism be during Dry January? It’s important to practice using one or more things during the timeframe to help you build up some effective alternative strategies. Every person is different so find something that feels right for you.

What will your alternative coping mechanism be during Dry January? How will you reset your relationship with alcohol?

When you’re feeling good, it’s easy to take your mental health for granted. But we all have mental health, and just like our physical health, it’s important to be aware of it and what factors in our life affect it most. According to Mental Health Resource, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a mental health problem in any given week in England, but there’s evidence to suggest that overusing alcohol during a period of poor mental health could make things worse. By getting involved in Dry January or similar challenge, you’re making a huge step towards feeling in control of your drinking. Let’s look forward to some of the great mental health boosts taking part in could give you.

As you progress through Dry January you may find those drinking urges begin to ease. This could be the first time you've reflected or recognised that your drinking is negatively associated with your mental health. It could be a really powerful turning point in your journey.

How moderating can help mental health

Overuse of alcohol can contribute to the worsening of symptoms of many mental health problems – in particular, it can lead to low mood and anxiety. Sometimes people don't even realise they experience anxiety due to drinking until they actually take a break from alcohol. Taking the decision to get involved in a challenge like Dry January could give you a well-needed break from alcohol, a mood boost and a sense of calm. Everyone is different and monitoring your mental health is really important throughout an alcohol-free challenge. Why not try using online wellbeing tracking features like the mood, sleep and energy level trackers in the Try Dry® app to help you notice patterns that could help you keep on top of your mental health?

Reducing your risk of depression

Depression and heavy drinking have a mutually reinforcing relationship – meaning that either condition increases a person’s chances of experiencing the other. For that reason, managing your alcohol intake is one way of reducing your risk of developing depression. If you do experience depression already, reducing the amount you drink may also help to manage symptoms. As we like to say in my line of work, every unit counts - and any reduction really can help improve your mental and physical health.

The calm before the storm

As the immediate feeling of calm after drinking fades over time, you may feel worse than before.

Post-drinking hangovers can be particularly difficult, with the usual headache and nausea being accompanied by feelings of depression and/or anxiety (you may know these better by the terms ‘hangxiety’ or the ‘beer fear’, which are colloquial ways of describing the brain’s neurochemistry returning to normal after an alcohol binge). Starting a Dry January journey could mean taking that first step towards a calmer you.

Making changes, not masking feelings

Using alcohol to get an initial feeling of calm can mean that the underlying mental health problems aren’t addressed. Being more mindful about how much and how often you drink by taking part in an alcohol-free challenge means you can start to draw patterns from how you’re really feeling when not masking emotions with alcohol. It can help many of us see a more honest reflection of our moods, making it clearer when we should seek mental health support.

If you feel better on the inside, this gives you a much better chance of feeling better on the outside. If you’ve chosen to take on the challenge of giving up alcohol for a month, you’ve given yourself a great chance of resetting your mental health and starting the year with a clear head. If this applies to you, try to be patient with yourself and remind yourself of the mental health benefits that could be coming your way as the weeks tick along. If you’ve already taken the first steps by signing up to an alcohol-free challenge like Dry January, that’s an achievement in itself! Good luck - I wish you every success.

For more alcohol and mental health hacks, Mark recommends downloading the Try Dry® app, and checking out the newly developed ‘More’ section. It’s packed full of tips, tricks and extra resources to help keep you on track. And if apps aren’t your thing, Mark also recommends the book Try Dry: The Official Guide to a Month Off Booze by Lauren Booker