Should I Choose Moderation or Abstinence?

Can I ever drink again?

One big question that comes up when people are making changes to their relationship with alcohol, is whether to stop drinking altogether or try to stick to moderation. This is a good question, and it is a good idea to consider this carefully. Some questions that can help guide your decision are:

Have I been able to drink in moderation in the past?

Is it possible for me to stop after one or two drinks?

Are there certain situations where I am likely to want to drink more?

How am I impacted by alcohol and what effect does it have on my body?

For some people, once they have looked at their relationship with alcohol, and made some changes to it, they may find that moderation is a good option. They may have made changes so that their consumption of alcohol is only in certain situations (like a glass of wine at dinner) and that there are some safeguards to prevent it from going further like asking their partner to support them in sticking to just the one drink.

For some people drinking mindfully will be effective in helping them to notice and enjoy the pleasant effects of alcohol, and understand when they have had enough.

When we are considering moderation, however, one really important thing to remember is that alcohol has a strong effect on the inhibitory parts of our brains, the parts that affect decision making and self-regulation. This is one of the reasons it can be really hard to stop after just one drink as our reward centres are buzzing with dopamine from that first drink, and at the same time, our ‘self-control’ centres are being taken offline by the effects of the alcohol. This is why we can sometimes have that war with our future and past selves, that part of us that was committed to going for a walk after the glass of wine might suddenly decide that it is a better idea to finish the whole bottle and watch a movie instead.

When we are considering moderation, remember this:

If we are trying to moderate our alcohol use, it can be really good to have some backup plans that can act as surrogate self-regulators. These could include having only a small amount of alcohol in the house, having a commitment where we need to be sober, having some replacement behaviours such as drinking sparkling water between drinks or having supportive people around us to gently remind us of our intentions. Checking into Daybreak is a good option as well since it can be an instant reminder of why we are wanting to make changes in the first place.

When might moderation not be a good option?

If you have never been able to drink in moderation, and have found that drinking generally results in losing control, then perhaps you are part of that population of people for whom alcohol just is not a good idea. We know that for some people, a combination of genetic and environmental factors result in them being really vulnerable to alcohol and their lives are a lot better when they are alcohol free. Attempting moderation can sometimes be stressful for these people, as it can be a huge challenge to stop at one drink and might lead to a person feeling discouraged and helpless.

Other times that moderation might not be a good idea might be when you are simply looking to take a break, to see what things are like without alcohol. It can be really refreshing to take a break from alcohol for a few weeks or months, even if you have no intention of stopping permanently.

The take home message from all of this is that, whether you choose moderation or alcohol free, the really important thing is to be realistic and guided by past behaviour.

Often when we first make the decision to change our relationship with alcohol, we will experiment with what works for us. Perhaps there are certain situations that we can drink in moderation, and others where we might find we drink more than we had planned most of the time. The key is to remain open and curious about these situations, and certain triggers. Considering what you would like your relationship with alcohol to be, in an ideal world, is a great place to start.

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  • I was abstinent for 18 months after a tumultuous affair with alcohol for many years. I feared that oneday I would pick up a drink and not be able to stop. This idea came from attending 12 step groups and also listening to and reading about other peoples struggles with alcohol. I read widely and researched alcohol and it’s effects and maintained a routine with exercise.and healthy eating. I didn’t want this fear to be in my head forever and I had finally come to understand and trully believe the toxic nature of alcohol. With this knowledge I was able to have a small glass of shiraz with a meal (nothing replaces this taste for me). Nothing happened, the world didn’t end and I didn’t want to go on guzzling the bottle! I am not sure but what I believe I have done is to be able to see alcohol for what it is and know that I cannot drink ever again like I used to. Many people who drink only drink rarely or very moderately their whole lives. I believe it can be done if you are mindful when drinking and are really sure that this is what you want to achieve. Being abstinent – the ‘not ever again’ mentality maybe wasn’t working for me coupled with the fear of having a ‘slip’ up oneday made me realise that alcohol is just a liquid that happens to be a grade 1 carconigen and small doses aren’t optional – but mandatory!

    By Mslil
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    July 3, 2019
    • This is great! I totally can relate to this but just started moderating after almost 5 months of abstinence…I’m curious now that it’s been almost 2 years since you posted this if you are still able to moderate (if you felt like sharing)?

      By Jake
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      May 21, 2021
  • Thanks for sharing this article! I just read your little bio at the bottom of the page and can relate to that a lot. I am 28 and stopped drinking almost 5 years ago because I believe I was in a similar boat as you. I didn’t have a good relationship with it, got terrible hangovers, and I think also just being in your early 20s and before that in college in the US you can easily view alcohol as a means purely to get hammered. In the first couple of years of sobriety I knew it was what I needed. I didn’t think about alcohol at all and continue to go out dancing and have a blast to this day. Something about summertime coming though this year really makes me reflect on if this is something I want to do forever. I miss having a drink with a friend at a restaurant, or meeting at a bar with a group. I don’t miss being drunk. I haven’t been hungover in forever and am very grateful for that. Reading your little message about how you were able to have a drink and something just clicked and you felt totally capable of putting it away is encouraging to me. I think so much of my drinking during that time of my life had to do with the people around me and my age. Being almost 30 and seeing how much I’ve grown over the past 5 years in confidence, understanding myself and being comfortable without alcohol, I do see it for what it is as well. I haven’t decided for certain one way or another what I’ll do. I suppose I’ll try a small beer sometime this summer and see what happens. Hopefully it’s pretty anticlimactic! Thanks again for sharing 🙂

    By Noah
    |
    May 20, 2020
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