The Rise of Sober Curiosity: Is Life Better Without Alcohol?

Whether it’s splitting a bottle of wine with girlfriends while watching The Bachelor or nursing a glass of pinot after a long day with the kids, consuming alcohol tends to be central to many people’s social lives and how they unwind.

The promotion of wine culture for women in their 30s and 40s is everywhere: from TV to movies to housewares promoting the “rosé all day” ethos, it’s no wonder women are obsessed with their nightly glass of vino. “Nothing says motherhood more than a big old morning cup of Joe and a big old evening glass of Pinot,” says Kristin White, a certified health and wellness coach. “And after a long day at work, urban working women go to happy hour and dinner is always accompanied by an order off the wine list.”

But there’s a wellness movement trying to curb that thinking. Enter sober curiosity: an exploration of life with little to no alcohol.

While the sober curious trend may seem counterculture, it’s been gaining momentum within recent years. In fact the number of Google searches for ‘Dry January‘ this year, for example, was more than double that of 2017. But just what is the sober curious movement?

While the dangers of alcohol have been promoted in society for years, Dr. Cheyenne Carter, PhD, LPC, Assistant Teaching Professor at Wake Forest University’s Online Master’s in Counseling program, who has worked with addicts, tells SheKnows, “I think more people are getting curious about the role alcohol plays in their lives and [are questioning] how and if it truly brings value.”

Why the Sober Curious Movement Is Growing

The sober curious movement can’t be pinpointed to one specific person or moment in time.

“Like most trends, it started with a few forward thinking and creative people saying, ‘Hey, why am I compromising my health, spending extraordinary amounts of money and depending on a substance to connect with other human beings?’” Dr. Paul L. Hokemeyer, clinical and consulting psychotherapist and addictions counselor, tells SheKnows.

“These are women and men who value authentic personal experiences and distrust corporate brands that tell them how to live their lives,” Dr. Hokemeyer says. “They’re also socially conscious and want to maximize their capacity to make the world a better place than the one in which they came of age.”

White has worked with moms in their 30s and 40s, who, after spending a decade of drinking, “can now confidently say that they don’t really enjoy the effects alcohol has on them,” she says. “These women are starting to take more consideration of their health, priorities and values. They’re now questioning what role alcohol serves in their lives and if they should take up sobriety.”

Ultimately, the sober curious movement can be about finding more authenticity in connection, says Rae Dylan, an Interventionist, Sober Companion and Sober Coach.

“There are many life stages where we all of a sudden realize we need to strengthen ourselves and our relationships with others,” says Dylan. “We put so much belief into ‘social media’ but yet what are we doing about our own social connection to each other? I think that ‘sober curious’ is about striving for our presence in our true reality.”

Who’s Sober Curious?

What’s most striking about sober curiosity is that the movement is not necessarily for addicts or for those who want to be complete teetotalers. It’s simply for those who want an alternative to drinking alcohol either altogether or in excess.

“After becoming a mom and having a less structured daily life, I found myself celebrating the end of my day with a glass of wine,” Laura Nelson, a health coach and mom, tells SheKnows. For Nelson, that nightly glass became a “celebratory habit at the strike of 5 p.m. to unwind; my time to indulge in something adult or, conversely, hit the pause button on adulting and motherhood.”

“I was not an addict,” she continues, “but [drinking became such] a habit that it made me question why I needed that ‘wine o’ clock’ in my life on the daily.”

Still, it took some time for her to ultimately decide to choose to be sober curious. “There was a voice in my head asking, in the last year before I quit, ‘Do you really need wine every night?’ It felt like I had become addicted to that nightly ritual, the uncorking of the bottle, the glug, glug, glug of the red wine pouring into the glass,” Nelson says.

Why It Takes Real Courage — Not ‘Liquid’ Courage

Nelson admits being sober curious has had its challenges. When social drinking is often treated as an obligation or something that most people just do, it can be difficult to say no to a glass of wine at a wedding or a pint at a bar.

“Hands down, social situations were the trickiest for me,” she says. “When I decided not to drink alcohol anymore, I felt like I had to remove myself from social situations that would involve phrases like ‘Would you like a drink?’ or ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’”

Her story is not unique — being sober curious can be tricky to navigate at all stages of life.

“It can be scary to go against societal norms, which is to drink in almost every social interaction, especially for millennials: dates, parties, networking events, happy hour with coworkers, baby showers and celebrations in general. Even coffee shops sell alcohol,” says Missy Pollack, an alumni coordinator at Recovery First Treatment Center in Hollywood, Florida, who works with graduates post-rehab.

“The idea that we need to escape our present reality, let loose and access ‘liquid courage’ in order to have a good time is a myth that the alcohol industry has had people buying for way too long,” says Pollack. “It takes courage to try something others may not support or understand.”

After a few months, Nelson says she found “new verbiage and confidence to fit my new lifestyle and, as with any habit, not drinking became easier and easier the longer I kept at it.”

The Benefits of Going Sober Curious

As for why people, millennial or not, should follow their sober curiosity, the benefits are numerous. Some of the most common are:

  • Clear thinking. “The primary benefit is being fully present for yourself, your relationships and the world around you,” says Dr. Hokemeyer. “Alcohol is a mind altering chemical. Ingesting it causes a number of physiological changes that cause distortions in our perceptions, our ability to think clearly and to react appropriately to other people.”
  • Healthy relationships and stress response. A life without or little alcohol means we can start to build healthier coping skills that support us throughout life, says Carter. “Alcohol is often used as a social lubricant, stress reliever, and distraction from distress,” she says. “Learning to build skills to have healthy relationships, care for ourselves and manage the distress that is inevitable in life is crucial for strong mental and emotional health.”
  • Spending less money. Hokemery points out that living in a city like New York can mean paying $20 per drink. “Then there are the poor financial decisions that get made while under the influence of alcohol. It doesn’t take long before you’re in debt, wondering where your money went and how you’re ever going to take that winter trip to Miami or retire,” he says. “One of the first things my clients tell me after they stop drinking is, ‘I have all this money now. I’m not sure what to do with it.’”
  • Health benefits. White says that, once off the wine, many of her clients experienced weight loss, less bloat, healthier hair and skin, fewer mood swings, regular periods, less (or no) PMS, better sleep, less brain fog, and more energy. “Other than the physical perks, women that have successfully given up wine also feel confident, proud and motivated to tackle more healthy goals,” adds White.

The Trend’s Backlash

For all the good sobriety can do, though, Pollack is concerned that the hashtag feel of sober curiosity diminishes the very real and harsh reality of addiction. “What concerns me most about sober curiosity is what concerns me about any movement really: it ends,” she says. “A movement gains traction, publicity, becomes a trend, then fades away along with the appeal and popularity. Also, with movements come opinions, polarization and often muddied information. Sobriety, as viewed by an actual addict or alcoholic, is a very serious issue that can’t afford to lose traction or appeal in one’s life, because it could mean plain misery or death.”

As Pollack puts it, sobriety will never fade or “move on” for addicts and alcoholics — their lives depend on them staying sober. “My biggest concern is that this movement is making light of a very serious topic,” she says. “Making it seem like it’s okay to be noncommittal to an issue that takes every ounce of commitment a true addict has just doesn’t seem right.”

Is Sober Curiosity Around to Stay?

Dylan sees sober curiosity as an opportunity to become more present and authentic in our lives, which are key timeless attributes that will never go out of style. “I do think that this trend will last,” says Dylan. “We all can always try something new to discover what we are capable of.”

Nelson says going sober has changed her perspective on life and allowed her to dig deep into the reasons behind her drinking, which she calls a “self-imposed crutch.”

“Sure, [wine] made me relax in the moment, but the flip side was that it permitted me to cover up feelings that I needed to address,” she says. Now, “the blindfold is off and I’m more in love with myself and accepting of the ups and downs of being a human, a wife and a mom.”

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