Why an entire health overhaul isn’t the best idea when you first quit drinking
We had an interesting conversation on a recent Thrivalist Group Coaching call. A student shared that she was 11 days alcohol-free and feeling grumpy and miserable. She’d cut out alcohol, caffeine and sugar, while at the same time going from not running at all to running 5km everyday. On top of this, she was trying to incorporate a bunch of suggestions from her naturopath including drinking three cups of nettle tea a day.
This is something we see often. Ladies sign up to Thrivalist and come in with guns blazing, ready for radical change. They commit to a massive health overhaul and start tackling everything; all at once.
The problem is, doing it all is exhausting. And hard, and unsustainable and therefore ineffective. Because inevitably, after a period of being ‘so good’, they burnout, and when they do, the pendulum often swings the other way. They feel like they’ve failed, so they hit the F&%k It Button and all of a sudden they’re binge-drinking, binge-eating, and binge-watching Netflix, while their running shoes gather dust.
If you can relate to this ‘all or nothing’ approach, I want you to know that not being able to stick to an unsustainable plan isn’t failure. It’s actually a powerful learning opportunity. One that can help you learn through experience that less is more when it comes to sustainable habit change, which is the focus of this blog post. Because if you don’t set yourself up for success, how can you expect yourself to succeed?
If you’ve been struggling to control your drinking, it’s highly likely that alcohol is your crutch. It’s something that you rely on, and something you feel you need. So, cutting it out from your life overnight is a big deal. A huge deal, actually. And if you want this massive change to stick, the last thing you need is to add more difficulty to the journey by cutting out other things like sugar and caffeine and committing to a whole new exercise regime.
In your first few weeks (or even months) of going alcohol-free, give yourself full permission to focus on this one thing only: Just not drinking. Everything else can wait.
The sugar, the caffeine, the diet clean-up, the exercise regime, the morning meditation ritual and the nettle tea can all wait for now. Give yourself permission to tackle these things later. Slowly, incrementally, one-by-one, little-by-little, over time, AFTER you’ve found your footing being alcohol-free.
One of our Alumni students, who hasn’t had a drink for eight months, shared on the call that she considers herself an all or nothing person. In the past she would yo-yo between trying to do everything, and then throwing in the towel and doing nothing. She said that what was different about her attempt to quit drinking this time was that she allowed herself to just focus on not drinking. She didn’t worry about her diet or exercise at all in the beginning. And she made a conscious effort to be kind to herself when she went through a phase of drinking a lot of diet coke or eating a lot of sugar. She reminded herself that these phases wouldn’t last forever and that she was allowing herself to do whatever she needed to do to achieve her primary goal, which was not to drink alcohol. Now, eight months later, she’s still not drinking, she’s eating well, exercising consistently, and she’s lost nearly 20kgs.
A very important piece that I want to highlight from that share, is being kind to yourself while you’re adjusting to life without alcohol. We speak about self-compassion as the basis for lasting behaviour change all the time. You can only shame yourself into behaving differently for so long! But when it comes to being kind to yourself with food and exercise, a lot of women struggle to implement this. And I get it, because effectively what I’m saying to you is: allow yourself to eat whatever you want, drink whatever you want (except alcohol, obviously), and take the pressure off yourself when it comes to exercise, while you adjust to AF living.
Many women don’t trust themselves with this level of permission and freedom around food and exercise. I know I certainly didn’t when I was younger. I thought that if it wasn’t for my rules, I would ‘let myself go’. But I think it’s time we gave ourselves more credit and started making choices that stem from love for ourselves, rather than fear – specifically the fear of gaining weight.
It’s normal to crave sugar when you stop drinking. Alcohol converts rapidly into sugar in the body, and when you drink it regularly your body comes to expect it as a quick source of fuel. When you suddenly stop drinking, your body misses the regular sugar hit, so you’re likely to find your sweet tooth ramping up to compensate. Add to this the fact that sugar causes dopamine to be released in the brain (as does alcohol) so when you’re missing those alcohol-induced dopamine hits, you’re likely to reach for sugar as a quick fix.
This knowledge can help you to guide your self-talk to be more compassionate when you find yourself at the bottom of a tub of ice-cream: ‘So, you ate some sugar?! That’s ok. You didn’t drink! You’re doing something hard and it’s ok to eat more sugar than usual right now. This won’t last forever. You’re doing really well. You’ve got this!!’. That’s what you’d say to your best friend, right? And that’s how you can choose to speak to yourself too.I know it’s easier said than done, and it does take practice to change the tone of your inner dialogue, but how you choose to speak to yourself is a choice. When you catch yourself speaking cruelly to yourself, you can stop, take a breath, and reframe that dialogue to be more self-compassionate.
Most women find that as the weeks and months roll by without drinking they start naturally gravitating towards healthier food choices. They find they feel intrinsically motivated to exercise because it makes them feel good. They’ve got energy, motivation and enthusiasm from the phenomenal sleep and other benefits that sobriety brings, and they start looking after themselves from a place of self-love, rather than from a place of fear of gaining weight.
So if you struggle with yo-yoing between all and nothing, why not try this different approach. Start small, just focus on not drinking for now. Allow the rest to come later, and be kind to yourself in the process.