The link between drinking and being social
You may have decided to cut back on alcohol or quit drinking altogether in order to improve your mood, sleep, physical health, or relationships. Or perhaps you’ve decided to take a temporary break from drinking as part of a “Dry January,” Lent, or a cleanse. But whether your goal is a long-term change in drinking habits or a short-term hiatus, you’ll likely run into a similar challenge: how to stay social without drinking alcohol.
Many of us use alcohol to as a social lubricant or to unwind and have fun with friends and family members. You might have beers with friends as you cheer on your favorite sports team, enjoy a glass of wine during a family dinner, enjoy a happy hour with coworkers, or experiment with mixed drinks at a college party.
Drinking alcohol and socializing go together in so many ways that trying to decouple the two activities can be a very tricky task. Perhaps you fear that if you’re not drinking then friends will stop inviting you out, leaving you feeling isolated and lonely. Even just the thought of enduring snide comments and mean-spirited jokes may prevent you from trying to cut back on your alcohol use.
Or maybe your concerns are based on internal factors. If you tend to alcohol to reduce social anxiety, you may fear that your stress levels will spike once you quit drinking. You may also be worried that you won’t know how to loosen up and have fun without a drink in your hand. The possibility of giving into temptation can add to this stress. You might ask yourself, “Can I stay sober when faced with peer pressure?”
No matter how tightly connected your alcohol use is with your social life, it is possible to give up or cut back on your drinking while staying social. The following tips can help you talk to others about your new drinking habits, set healthy boundaries, and address potential triggers that could derail your good intentions.
How to talk to people about your new drinking habits
If drinking is a staple of your social life, you might feel a little nervous about talking to others about your decision. Whether you’re quitting, cutting back, or taking a temporary break from alcohol, it can help to explain your new intentions to friends and drinking buddies. Some will be more supportive than others, but it can be easier to explain yourself once rather than have to repeatedly turn down drinks.
The conversation doesn’t need to feel formal. You don’t need to gather all your friends in one room and make a big announcement. You can casually mention your new drinking habits in one-on-one interactions. Just make sure they understand that you’re serious about the change.
Set clear boundaries. If you plan to cut back, be clear about how much you’re willing to drink. If you plan to abstain entirely, make that clear. If you’re aiming for a short-term goal, such as a month-long cleanse, you can let them know your timeline as well.
Decide if you want to give reasons for your change. You shouldn’t feel pressured to explain yourself. However, doing so might make it easier for those around you to understand why you’re changing your drinking habits. Some friends may even relate to your goals and decide to join you in cutting back.
Let others know how they can support you. This could involve relocating your weekly hangouts to places other than bars or replacing drinking games with other activities. You might also appreciate verbal support and words of encouragement from friends and family. At the very least, they shouldn’t relentlessly tease you or pressure you to drink.
Be ready for potential negativity. It’s possible that your decision to cut back on drinking will rub some people the wrong way. Some members of your social circle may respond with dismissive gestures, like rolling their eyes, or stern verbal objections. But don’t allow their negative reactions to deter you. Instead, shift your attention and time to more supportive friends and family members.
Even after you talk to your friends about your goals, you may still run into other challenges, both external and internal. The following tips can help improve your chances of success.
Maintaining sobriety when socializing tip 1: Be mindful of triggers
Knowing your triggers is always a helpful first step in dropping an ingrained habit. Triggers are situations that spark an urge to drink. For example, watching another person drink a beer could make you crave one. Or maybe hanging out with certain friends after work serves as a mental cue that it’s time to drink. Emotional states, such as anxiety or embarrassment, can also act as triggers.
Take a moment to write down your triggers. This will give you a general idea of what internal and external obstacles you’re likely to encounter as you try to stop drinking. Then, you can begin to prepare the appropriate preventative steps.
For example, being at bars, sporting events, or other venues that serve alcohol can be a trigger top drink. Rather than put yourself in that position, do what you can to steer social hangouts to places and occasions where drinking isn’t the norm. For example:
- Watch movies or local stage performances where alcohol isn’t served.
- Use cafes, community halls, or libraries as casual meetup spots with friends.
- Catch up with a friend while walking, hiking, or cycling rather than at a bar.
- Spend time with others at museums, galleries, or exhibitions.
Tip 2: Know how to respond to peer pressure
Unsupportive friends or old drinking buddies can be common sources of peer pressure. When you’re out socializing, you might face teasing comments like
“You’re so boring now,” or “Why are you afraid to drink?” Even gentle nudges like, “Come on, just have one drink, I’m buying,” can become frustrating or uncomfortable and trigger you to drink.
It can help to have some responses lined up in advance. Consider saying things like:
- “I’m driving, so I don’t want to drink.”
- “I have work in the morning and alcohol affects my sleep.”
- “I’m cutting back for health reasons.”
- “My doctor wants me to cut back.”
Keep in mind that you’re under no obligation to explain yourself. You can firmly but politely say, “I won’t be drinking tonight,” and then change the subject. A single assertive answer is often enough to get your point across, but be ready to say “no” again if the person is insistent. Good friends should respect your decision without giving you any pushback.
Finding new friends who don’t drink
If your current friends aren’t supportive of your efforts to stop drinking, know that making new friends is always an option. By cutting out trips to the bar and morning hangovers, you’ve probably freed up some time in your schedule. Use that time to make new connections.
Join local clubs that match your hobbies. If you’re a bookworm, join a book club. If you’re into arts and crafts, you can likely find clubs that cater to those interests. Enjoy spending time in nature? Look for hiking or walking groups. Once you’re in these types of spaces, you can bond with people over interests aside from drinking. Mutual-support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), can also offer ways to connect with people who are dealing with similar challenges.
Look for volunteer opportunities. Volunteering is a great way to build relationships as well as cultivate a sense of purpose. From soup kitchens to mentorship programs, look for ways to use your skills to serve your community. Social connections will crop up naturally as you get to know peers and the people you’re helping.
Take a class. Community colleges tend to offer courses in a variety of subjects for people of any age. Classes that focus on creative skills, such as acting, dancing, and writing, often require you to engage with peers. Embrace the opportunity to develop and nurture your skills while also connecting with people who have similar passions.
Tip 3: Try out non-alcoholic drinks
If you’re at an event where everyone else is drinking, you may feel a little awkward without a drink in your hand. In these cases, non-alcoholic substitutes can come in handy. Since more and more people are choosing to abstain these days, the choice and quality of non-alcoholic drinks has improved a lot in recent years.
Consider ordering a classic non-alcoholic cocktail such as a Shirley Temple, trying a zero-alcohol beer, or even a glass of alcohol-free wine.
If you’re cutting back
If you’re trying to cut back on alcohol rather than quitting entirely, the following tips can also help:
- Set a limit of one or two drinks. Create a reminder on your phone or let a few friends know about your limit. When you’ve hit your limit, switch to soda or a non-alcoholic alternative.
- Sip slowly. Take time to enjoy the flavor of your beverage. This will help prevent you from chugging drinks and quickly hitting or exceeding your limit.
- Drink more water. Stay hydrated before you start drinking and between sips of alcohol. Alternating alcoholic drinks with water can also help slow down how quickly you reach your limit.
- Focus on the food. A full stomach can help dissuade you from ordering another drink.
Tip 4: Manage social anxiety
If social experiences make you feel nervous, you may instinctively reach for a drink to calm your nerves or make you less inhibited. Self-medicating your emotions in this way is common, but there are healthier ways to minimize feelings of anxiety and stress.
Practice breathing exercises. Studies show that learning to control your breathing can help calm your nervous system, quiet your mind, and ease physical tension. You can practice the simple breathing exercise below or try HelpGuide’s Deep Breathing Meditation.
A simple breathing exercise to manage social anxiety
If you start to feel overwhelmed during a social event, find somewhere quiet to perform this simple breathing exercise until you feel relaxed and centered:
- Sit or stand with a straight back. Put one hand on your stomach, the other on your chest.
- Take a slow breath in through your nose and count to four. You should notice the hand on your stomach rise, while the hand on your chest moves very little.
- Hold your breath, counting to seven.
- Exhale through your mouth while counting to eight. Push out as much air as you can and contract your stomach muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, while the hand on your chest moves very little.
- Inhale again, repeating the cycle until the anxiety passes.
Identify and challenge negative thoughts. Do you tend to beat yourself up if you make a social faux pas? Or maybe you have a habit of anticipating rejection or feelings of embarrassment when you’re socializing. Pay attention to the quality of your thoughts. Question whether you’re being too hard on yourself and turning a minor problem into a catastrophe.
Shift your focus. If you have social anxiety, you may find that you focus so much on your internal dialogue that you have a hard time engaging others. Instead, direct your attention outward to other people. What are they saying? How are they saying it? What’s their body language? As you try to answer these questions, you’ll likely turn down the volume of your own self-criticism.
Tip 5: Know how to handle setbacks
Dropping a bad habit and making a healthy change in life is always challenging. There may be times when you give in to peer pressure and have a few drinks. Or maybe you go past your set limit and wake up the next day full of regrets.
Experiences like these can leave you feeling ashamed and frustrated. You might feel concerned about what the alcohol is doing to your health or begin to question your own self-control and willpower.
Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, commend yourself for the attempt and acknowledge that stopping or cutting back on drinking isn’t easy. Also recognize that just because you slipped up and had a few drinks it doesn’t mean you have to completely throw out goals like Dry January. Just try again. Giving up alcohol for 29 or 30 days of January, for example, is still a commendable achievement.
Identify what went wrong. What events ultimately led to you drinking? Did a friend say something convincing? Did you feel like you needed a drink to reduce mounting anxiety? Did a known trigger—such as walking into a bar and seeing other people drinking—play a role?
Decide how to better handle similar situations in the future. If a friend coaxed you into drinking, you might consider limiting your interactions with them to non-drinking events. If social anxiety is part of the problem, you can experiment with different approaches to anxiety relief. Believe that you can overcome the hurdle with persistence and a problem-solving mindset.
Revisiting your motives
If you’re questioning whether you should try again, remind yourself of your initial motivations for cutting back or quitting alcohol. It might help to have a written list of reasons—big and small—that you can review in times of doubt. Your reasons might include:
- “I hate feeling hungover in the morning.”
- “I’m trying to give my body a cleanse.”
- “Drinking feels good in the moment but depresses my mood later.”
- “I’m trying to improve my physical health.”
- “I have a hard time stopping once I start drinking.”
- “I’d like to save money for more important things.”
Use your list to help boost your willpower and reinforce the commitment to your goals.
Supporting someone who’s no longer drinking
If a loved one is trying to change their drinking habits, they will appreciate your support. Although it’s not your job to dictate their behavior, there are a few steps you can take to help them meet their goals.
Avoid pressuring your friend or loved one to drink. Even playful teasing or offhanded comments like, “Oh that’s right, you’re a stick-in-the-mud now,” can exert pressure or make them feel excluded.
Suggest non-drinking activities and hobbies. You can help guide your group of friends toward places and events that don’t involve alcohol. Consider pitching outings to museums and cafes rather than bars. Or check out local clubs, art classes, or recreational sports leagues.
Help your friend prepare for peer pressure. If your loved one is worried about how others will respond, they might want help crafting responses or excuses to avoid alcohol. For example, if you go to a party together, your loved one can be your designated driver. You can also try roleplay activities if they need to practice being assertive. Assume the role of someone trying to pressure them into drinking, and see how your loved one handles the situation.
Realize that your support can make a big difference in your loved one’s life. Don’t hesitate to offer words of encouragement and let them know you’re there for them. For more tips, see: Helping Someone with a Drinking Problem.
Helplines and support
Last updated or reviewed on March 1, 2023