January can be a hard month for a multitude of reasons, all of which are so familiar there’s no point in rehashing them here. Yet for some reason when New Year rolls around, millions of people decide to make what I believe to be the most depressing time of the year even worse, by giving up drinking alcohol. Dry January has become so widespread – with a reported 5.6 million Brits getting sober in 2018 – that it’s become something of a cliché. Indeed, it’s up there with people trying to quit smoking or those that decide to ‘get fit’ in terms of New Year’s resolutions (it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the gym is never busier than in January), frequently eliciting an eye-roll from non-dry January-ers.
Yet with statistics showing that most people cave and start drinking again by 20 January, is ‘damp January’ (or ‘demi sec January’ – aka semi-dry - as it's also being referred to) actually a better idea? The term has been gaining more traction this year (there have been approximately 700 posts on Instagram hashtagged #DampJanuary and #DampJan in 2018), with many deciding that instead of committing to a full 31 days without touching the booze, it’s actually more realistic to say that you’ll avoid unnecessary drinking, reserving it just for special occasions such as birthdays, engagement parties and weddings – i.e. the times when Dry January goes from being just about doable to damn near impossible.
‘I decided that January is too miserable at it is, what with no more chocolate, cheese, or Christmas cheer, to deprive myself of alcohol all together as well, so I decided I’d just drink at social engagements in my diary based at pubs and clubs, but cut out the casual weekday drinks or wine with dinner,’ explains Jenny, 26. ‘It was also a good way to ween myself off the heavy drinking I did every day of December... And it was a great excuse to use when I needed to say ‘no thank you’ when I was offered a drink I didn’t really want or need, as I’m awful at turning things down.’
Studies have often shown that contrary to widespread belief, going completely dry in January to then revert back to your former drinking habits isn’t actually doing your body that much good – instead, cutting back generally throughout the year is considered to be better in terms of your health. As Drink Aware explains: ‘People shouldn’t think that cutting back or having a break from alcohol for a short while means that it’s OK to drink to excess over the rest of the year. To keep the health risks from alcohol to a low level, it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis.’
In this way, doing a damp January is probably going to be better at forming healthy habits than a full dry January, because you’re learning how to say no some of the time, without ever feeling like you’re completing denying yourself something. As Jenny explains: ‘I found damp January a lot easier as I wasn’t fighting the thought that I wasn’t allowed a single drop (which makes you want it more somehow). I only drank on two occasions in the end, but didn’t ever feel restricted or like I was ‘craving’ a drink. It also probably means I won’t go on a self-destructive bender on February 1st…’
As a nation, Brits are drinking less and less, with the millennial generation cutting down the most. A recent study showed that during the Christmas period 37 per cent of people weren’t drinking, with the highest proportion of those being in the 16-24 age range. But why the change in attitude? As Grazia’s Deputy Editor and author of Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, Rosamund Dean explains, it’s all to do with the era that they grew up in, and namely, you guessed it – social media.
‘I was a teenager in the 1990s, when the Jack Daniels-wielding ladette was at her zenith, Kate Moss was bathing in champagne with Johnny Depp, and Carrie Bradshaw was running around New York with a Cosmopolitan in her hand,’ explains Dean. ‘My icons were all drunk, a lot of the time, and so was I. Millennials grew up in a different era. Social media gave rise to a new type of icon: clean-living Insta wellness gurus and the famously teetotal Kardashian clan. Then there’s the fact that Millennials grew up seeing their parents stumble around like Eddie and Patsy from Ab Fab, which gave them a pretty clear message that getting drunk = not cool.’
This might explain why out of all the people I’ve spoken to that are doing damp January, it’s the Xennials (those born between Gen X and Millennials) who have struggled the most with sticking to it. As Alice, 34, explained: ‘I was originally intending to do a full dry January, but had a few really fun events lined up, so decided to go semi-dry and only drink when I had a specific reason to. The only problem is, on every occasion where I have gone out, I’ve got so overexcited at the prospect of drinking, I’ve got absolutely plastered, and felt terrible the next day. One massive hangover after a booze-free, virtuous week feels so much worse than a constant, low-level booze head.’
So, while damp January works for some people, it doesn’t work for everyone, particularly if you’re taking the approach of cashing in your 'health points' at the end of a week of no drinking and then binge drinking as a result. As Dean explains: ‘For many people, complete abstinence is actually easier, because moderation involves lots of decisions - shall I drink today? What shall I drink? How much shall I drink? - which all provide an opportunity to slip up. The other thing is that, once you have had one or two drinks, the ‘off-switch’ in your mind becomes a bit tricky to reach.’
Indeed, this was the thinking behind Dean’s book, which gives you techniques for cutting back and saying no while also being able to enjoy a glass of fizz with friends of a cold G&T on a hot day. ‘I wrote the book to find a way to resist the cheap wine at a work event, and the habit of opening a bottle as soon as the kids are in bed,’ she says. ‘Through writing it I learnt lots of tools that make moderation easy, and now I am one of those smug people who is capable of stopping after one glass of wine, and has several alcohol-free days a week.’
So, if you do a damp January, can you expect to be more responsible about your drinking throughout the year? It’s likely. ‘When you completely deny yourself of something it can feel like a punishment and we all know that when you can’t have something you want it more,' explains psychologist Kirsten Godfrey. 'This is also known as the scarcity principle. A sudden shift from drinking alcohol to then going cold turkey will make drinking alcohol seem far more attractive than previously which is often why people then end dry January with a big binge session. A far better approach is to cut down moderately, having a little of what you like, so it feels less like a punishment and alcohol doesn’t become the pot of gold at the end of a dry January rainbow.'
Psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew agrees. 'Often choices and small steps work better for long term lifestyle changes. So people might choose to change one small drinking habit (have a single not a double, have one glass of wine and not two) knowing that over a long period of time this is going to be a positive step towards significant change.'
So if you've been beating yourself up about not doing a dry January this year - don't. Cutting back throughout the year and learning more responsible drinking habits could be better for you in the long-run anyway.
Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your LifeMindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life by Rosamund Dean is out now