This is the first of a monthly advice column written by Annie Grace. Annie is the author of the life-giving book, This Naked Mind which has helped thousands of people around the world quit drinking for good; as well as and her forthcoming book, The Alcohol Experiment. Annie will answer reader questions to help you break free of limiting beliefs that keep you stuck in old drinking habits. 

Have a question for Annie? Email it to [email protected] with the subject line, “Ask Annie Grace.” You’re welcome to use a pseudonym.

Hi Annie,

I want to quit drinking, but I don’t know where to start. Should I stop cold turkey or gradually taper off? Do you have any advice? 

– Sick and Tired


Dear Sick and Tired, 

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a step-by-step, failsafe guide on how to quit drinking? One guaranteed way to stop? Although you’ll find plenty of books, articles, and advice on the subject, there’s no way to know what’s right for you personally. So, how do you go about quitting drinking? All at once? In baby steps? Here’s what to consider when you’re trying to decide.

For most of us, gradually tapering off our drinking seems like the least painful approach. If you’re a heavy drinker who might be physically dependent on alcohol, I’d advise not changing anything until consulting with your physician. Alcohol withdrawals are serious and do require medical supervision.

If you’ve previously tried to stop drinking and experienced physical withdrawals, it’s likely you’ll experience them again. If that’s not you, keep reading on.

When I first thought that I might be drinking too much, I tried to taper off my drinking and set what I felt were “reasonable limits.” No more than two drinks a night. I could only drink every other night. I felt like these were achievable goals and realistic.

Except I kept failing.

According to the CDC, about 90% of people who drink excessively would not be expected to meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for having a severe alcohol use disorder. A severe alcohol use disorder, previously known as alcohol dependence or alcoholism, is a chronic disease.

Some of the signs and symptoms of a severe alcohol use disorder can include:

  • Inability to limit drinking
  • Continuing to drink despite personal or professional problems
  • Needing to drink more to get the same effect as you did before when consuming less alcohol
  • Wanting a drink so badly you can’t think of anything else

So, if most of us aren’t physically dependent on alcohol, then why is it so hard to stop drinking? Why do we try to taper off or ease our way out of it rather than just stopping all at once?

Well, the attachment to alcohol is all in your head.

We drink because of our beliefs. And we keep drinking because of our beliefs.

Alcohol makes me happy.
Alcohol helps me relax.
I need alcohol to socialize.

These beliefs have been formed over time and attach each one of us individually. That makes them very true. How, then, do we go about dispelling the beliefs if we do want to stop drinking—gradually or all at once?

You ACT.

ACT = Awareness, Clarity, and Turnaround

ACT is a three-step process I’ve developed that enables you to unwind some of your long-held beliefs around alcohol. This means that when you do make a change, you’ll find it so much easier because your beliefs, and specifically your subconscious beliefs around drinking, will have shifted. You’re going to become aware of your belief by naming and putting language to it. Next. you’ll clarify the belief, where it came from, and how it feels inside you. Finally, you will turnaround the belief coming up with a few reasons why the opposite of your long-held belief may be as true or truer than the original belief.

To put this in action we’ll go with a common belief: Alcohol makes me happy.

Awareness

You believe that alcohol is what makes you happy.

Clarity

You believe that alcohol makes you happy because it’s what you see. Turn on the TV and people are celebrating with alcohol. Movies, radio, music, etc.: e sing, dance, and celebrate how great alcohol is in the media all day long. We also see it in our own lives. When we meet for drinks, we go for “Happy Hour,” and for many of us, drinking tends to occur in a fun, social setting with people we like. So, your experiences created and cemented this belief.

Has it always been true to you, though? Have you always needed alcohol to be happy? Can you be happy without alcohol? What is happiness to you? It’s easy to say alcohol makes us happy, but breaking down and defining what we mean by “happiness” really forces us to examine and clarify that belief.

I know that I didn’t always need alcohol to be happy. I didn’t even start drinking until after college, so that’s a whole lot of years I was happy without drinking. To me, happiness is something that I feel from within. How was I getting it from a bottle? Was it the alcohol making me happy, or the people whom I was drinking with?

If a little alcohol makes us a little happy, more alcohol should increase our happiness, right? Except, as anyone who has had a heavy drinking night can tell you, more alcohol does not increase happiness. The reason we drink more alcohol is that we are chasing the high that first drink gave us.

Turnaround

Rephrase the initial belief about alcohol based on what you now know is true. Dig deep to find at least three reasons that the turnaround is as true or truer than your original belief.

Alcohol makes me sad.
Alcohol is a downer.
My friends are what makes me happy.

It’s easy to get caught up in the logistics of how to stop drinking and obsess over whether to taper off or quit cold turkey. The physical act of stopping drinking can actually be the easy part.

Rather,  it’s the mental aspect that, although harder, is where your success lies. To stop drinking successfully, try applying the ACT Technique (Awareness, Clarity, and Turnaround) to all of the beliefs that mentally keep you going back for more. Replacing those experiences is the key to eliminating the desire to drink.

When you lose the desire to drink you no longer wrestle with deciding how to stop drinking. What you gain instead is freedom.