The Art of Mindful Drinking

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What’s the right role for alcohol in your life? Experts offer suggestions for creating a healthier, more conscious relationship to drinking.

When I was growing up, my French-born mother sipped wine freely and daily. I can picture her in the kitchen, stirring a bubbly cassoulet in a dark blue enamel pot, preparing a plate of cheeses, churning the pepper mill — with a glass in hand or waiting close by. A habitual part of her cooking process, wine was also served at every evening meal. Long, narrow, green-tinted bottles with strangely spelled words were as much of a staple in our fridge as a container of milk.

Drinking was part of her culture, and a seemingly harmless one. But later in life, my mother started using wine as a way to escape, numbing herself from demons past and transitions present. I realized then that I didn’t ever want to become a person who relied on drinking, for anything.

Instead, I prefer to be a social drinker, someone who enjoys wine at an evening meal, a cold beer at a baseball game, a margarita during a girls’ night out. And from time to time I find it helpful to stop and think about the when, why, and how much.

For that reason, I don’t drink on Mondays. Sometimes I’d like to, but I’ve decided that for at least one day during the week, I need to rest from the dinnertime wine I drink on the other six days. I don’t think I have a drinking problem. But I’m trying to figure out when fun, take-the-edge-off drinking becomes serious drinking — like it did for my mother.

According to experts on addictive behavior, the decision to take a routine break may have already put me on a healthier track. Most suggest that maintaining self-awareness and having personal guidelines is key to having a healthy relationship with alcohol. Since that’s easier said than done, the following are some more expert insights to help you keep a clear head about drinking.

Mindfulness and Moderation

“It’s not unreasonable to have alcohol as a part of your life, as long as you are able to assess whether or not you are relying on it too much,” says Carrie Wilkens, PhD, cofounder and clinical director of the Center for Motivation and Change in New York City, which helps clients assess their relationships with alcohol and moderate them as necessary. The key, she says, is learning to consume consciously enough to know how you’re being affected.

“It’s all about awareness and experiencing what you are doing,” agrees Marc David, MA, a nutritional psychologist and founder-director of the Boulder, Colo.–based Institute for the Psychology of Eating. “Enjoying powerful substances like caffeine, sugar and alcohol doesn’t have to be bad, as long as you are aware if it hurts or hinders you.”

For most adults, one drink can have the pleasant effect of reducing perceived stress, quieting mental chatter, maybe even loosening up creative impulses. And many studies have suggested that a daily drink may also positively affect bodily health. “Benefits can include a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, a lower risk of developing dementia with advancing age, and some increase in longevity,” according to Amitava Dasgupta, PhD, author of The Science of Drinking (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

So what is moderate drinking, exactly? According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), moderate alcohol use is defined as up to two drinks a day for adult men and one drink a day for adult women. (One drink equals one 12-ounce bottle of beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof, distilled spirits.) Any more than that the NIAAA considers “heavy” or “at-risk drinking.”

Still, no single guideline applies to everyone or every situation. “Risk factors are variable and people should respect their individual makeup,” says Wilkens. People who suffer from depression or have a family history of alcoholism are at higher risk of developing a drinking problem. Drinking on an empty stomach is different from drinking with a meal. For some people, even one glass of wine is enough to disturb their sleep.

Ultimately, a healthy relationship with alcohol requires being able to feel your body’s response to a drink and adjust your intake accordingly.

Taking a Closer Look

If you do have some concerns about the amount or frequency of your drinking, or if someone close to you has expressed concern about your habits, it may be time to step back and evaluate. Wilkens recommends asking yourself the following questions:

When do you drink? Are you drinking frequently or automatically? Has it become a part of every social interaction and pastime?

Why do you drink? Is it to cope with (or avoid) problems, to unwind from stressful situations, to fit in with friends who are drinking?

How easy is it to take a break? Not being able to stop drinking for a few days, or not wanting to, can show emotional and possibly physiological dependence.

If you evaluate your habits and decide to cut back, drinking less may bring you more energy and focus, improve your sleep, help you drop excess weight, and brighten your mood, say experts. You may also notice improvements in your social life and self-esteem.

When Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of The Happiness Project (Harper, 2009), took stock of her drinking, she realized it didn’t make her feel jolly. It caused her to become belligerent. “Alcohol made me spoil for a fight and say things that I wouldn’t ordinarily say,” explains Rubin. “When I drank, I became less tactful and more gossipy.”

Although she was never dependent on alcohol, Rubin has since decided to largely avoid it. She now drinks only on special occasions where accepting a glass of champagne makes her feel more social than antisocial.

Cultivating Moderation

Say your evaluation reveals that you’re drinking more than you’d like, or you’ve started to notice negative effects like sleep disruption, but you’d still like to enjoy a glass of wine once in a while. Wilkens offers the following strategies for cultivating moderation:

Take a week off. Then set a clear moderation goal for each week going forward, e.g., no more than one drink on any day.

Drink only with food. It prevents a drink from going straight to your head.

If you’re feeling down, don’t drink. “If you’re upset, lonely or depressed, try to deal with the feeling first,” says Wilkens. “Look to find alternative ways to help deal with those feelings.” Take a walk, head for the gym, work on a project, or talk to a friend.

A drink or two can help us enjoy social gatherings, be a pleasurable part of meals (or baseball games), and help us celebrate important events. Still, there’s something to be said for taking pleasure in the moment for the moment itself — without the help of alcohol.

Personally, I’m planning to stay mindful of when, why and how much I drink. And as long as there’s no negative effect, I’ll keep on enjoying wine with dinner. Except on Mondays.

Caren Osten Gerszberg is a New York–based writer and coeditor of a blog called Drinking Diaries (www.drinkingdiaries.com). She is also coeditor of the forthcoming anthology of essays about women and alcohol, Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up (Seal Press, Fall 2012).

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