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How to unwind without alcohol

May 7, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC
Oscar Wong—Getty Images

After a long day of wrangling emails, resolving dilemmas at work and home, and trying to plan for tomorrow, relaxing with a glass of wine might sound pretty good. But there are other ways to decompress that might be better for your long term wellbeing than a nightly glass or two of vino.

Alcohol’s ability to help you unwind is “more myth than fact,” says David Lardier, Jr, PhD, assistant research professor at University of New Mexico’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science. He studies substance use and also works as a therapist. Even if alcohol’s sedating effect makes you feel momentarily better, drinking it can disrupt your sleep cycle, making you feel less rested the next day, cause insomnia, and worsen sleep apnea. Excessive alcohol use is also linked to injury, poor sleep, depression and a host of long-term health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and some types of cancer.

Awareness of the health effects of alcohol has grown in recent years, and many Americans—about 22% that Nielsen surveyed on this issue in 2021—are cutting back on their alcohol consumption. That doesn’t mean they’re all going cold turkey: many so-called “sober curious” folks are still buying and consuming alcohol, but in greater moderation. If you’re thinking about joining their ranks, experts suggest these alcohol-free ways to unwind.

It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that not all of these suggestions are likely to work for you, personally. “No one approach is going to be for everyone,” says New York City therapist Lauren Urban. It might take a bit of time to figure out the exact recipe for your own relaxation. 

Urban, who stopped drinking six years ago, tells clients who want to moderate their drinking to stop thinking about the big picture—cutting back or even stopping drinking altogether—and instead focus on making new habits.

Start with a list

When starting your own journey to cut back on drinking, Lardier suggests making a list of the activities that help you unwind. Maybe it’s a bike ride, walking your dog, reading a book, texting a friend. If you’re stuck on how to relax, you can always look at the list and pick an activity. 

Behind this suggestion is an important fact: making lifestyle changes can be difficult. Lardier says transitional periods, like trying to find different ways to shake off the day, can be stressful in and of themselves, which is the opposite of what you want. Having a list, so you don’t have to come up with something on the fly, can make it easier. 

Move a little—whatever that means for you

For some, exercise might seem like the opposite of relaxing. But getting moving—whether that means some yoga in your living room, a class at the gym, or a walk around the block—will help you wind down. Even if you’re feeling pretty beat, research has shown that doing even a little activity can lift your mood and lower your stress levels. And unlike drinking alcohol, exercise has also been linked to better sleep.

Getting out to exercise is also a great way of replacing the time you might otherwise spend drinking with an activity, says Joseph LaBrie, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who studies substance use.

Open up your mind

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword these days, but the concepts underpinning it are the real thing, says Lardier. There are a myriad of methods and ideas about how to become more centered in your body and to still your mind, but he says deep breathing exercises or meditation—two things you can do for free with no training—might be a place to start. 

Science still doesn’t know exactly how mindfulness is linked to wellbeing, but numerous studies have demonstrated its health impacts, which include everything from improving mood in the short term to reducing stress and anxiety. Mindfulness has even been linked to improved heart health.

Keep your nightly ritual–just change the substance

A big part of the appeal of a nightly drink actually has nothing to do with the alcohol: it’s the expectation that the alcohol will help you relax. Research dating back to the early 1970s demonstrates that many of alcohol’s perceived positive effects—including relaxation—are what psychologists refer to as “expectancy effects,” says LaBrie. In other words, if you’re expecting that drinking a cocktail will help you relax, then you’ll feel more relaxed when you sit down with that highball glass.  

You can turn that effect to your advantage by swapping out your regular tipple for a non-alcoholic beverage. Fortunately, there are a panoply of 0% ABV options on the market now designed to taste just like beer, wine, and even spirits. 

If you’re not keen on these options, or you’re concerned that drinking non-alcoholic wine might prompt you to reach for the real thing, there are plenty of other options. Seltzer, soft drinks, or even a sweet treat like ice cream might help hit the spot. 

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