Trying to drink less? There's an app for that

A recycling bin in the Heights of Little Rock quickly fills to overflowing every week.
(Democrat-Gazette illustration/Celia Storey)
A recycling bin in the Heights of Little Rock quickly fills to overflowing every week. (Democrat-Gazette illustration/Celia Storey)

For most of her life, Andrea Carbone, 51, a paralegal living in Florida, was not a big drinker. But when the pandemic struck, she worried constantly about her job, her health and the safety of her children.

While many people were able to work from home, Carbone was required to go to the office. Some mornings she would cry in her car as she drove along deserted roads and highways to get to her office in downtown Tampa, which looked, she said, "like a ghost town."

Before the pandemic, Carbone would have a glass of red wine with dinner most nights. But by May, her intake had climbed substantially.

"I noticed I was having a glass of wine as soon as I got home, then a glass with dinner, then we'd sit down to watch TV and I'd have another glass or two," she said. "By the end of the night I was drinking a bottle."

A nationwide survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association in February found that 1 in 4 adults reported drinking more in 2020 to manage their stress. That rate more than doubled among those who had children between the ages of 5 and 7.

Another study published in JAMA Network Open in October found that Americans increased the frequency of their alcohol consumption by 14% compared to a year earlier. The same study found a 41% increase in the number of days on which women drank heavily, defined as having four or more drinks in a couple of hours.

Hospitals around the country have reported an increase in admissions for hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver failure and other forms of alcohol-related diseases.

Before last year, Gordon Mueller, a retiree who lives in Rochester, N.Y., rarely consumed more than one or two drinks a day. But when the pandemic struck and the economy and stock market stumbled, Mueller was consumed by anxiety as he followed the news and worried about his retirement account. As Mueller sheltered in place at home with his wife, his alcohol intake escalated to seven drinks a day: vodka cocktails in the afternoon, wine with dinner and a whiskey nightcap before bed.

"It was just a lot of fear and boredom," he said. "Those were the two emotions."

But many people have found novel ways to rein in their drinking. In December, Mueller turned to Moderation Management, an online community that helps people who want to cut back on their drinking but not necessarily abstain. He started attending Zoom calls with other members and using the organization's private Facebook group to learn tips and advice to reduce his drinking. In January, he decided to give up alcohol for a while to see how he would feel.

"I'm happy to say that I haven't had a drink this year, and I feel a lot better: I sleep better, and I can get more things done," he said. "The nice thing about this moderation group is that it's not an all-or-nothing 'You can never drink again or you're a failed alcoholic' approach."

In Tampa, Carbone started using an app called Cutback Coach, which helps people track their alcohol intake and set goals and reminders so they can develop healthier drinking habits. Using the app, Carbone makes a plan for how much she will drink each week. The app tracks her daily intake, sends her notifications about her goals, and updates her on her progress, including all the calories she avoided and the money she saved by drinking less.

She has at least two "dry" days per week and has cut her drinking in half.

"Seeing the progress that I've made makes me feel good and makes me keep doing it," she said. "I sleep a lot better. I wake up less at night. I wake up feeling less sluggish, less tired, and I've been going to the gym more regularly, whereas before I couldn't drag myself there."

For people who want to reduce their drinking, here are some tips that might help.

Try precommitment

Rather than relying on willpower alone, make a plan every Sunday to limit your drinking to a specific amount each day of the week and stick to it. This is a tactic known as precommitment, which Cutback Coach uses to help its thousands of members. The idea behind it is that you increase your chances of success by committing to a plan and restricting your ability to back out later on. Some other examples of precommitment are deciding not to keep junk food in your house and encouraging yourself to exercise by scheduling a workout with a friend. Studies show that precommitment is an effective way to change behavior.

Find social support

Talk to your spouse, a friend or a family member about your plan to drink less. They can hold you accountable and help you find healthier ways to manage your stress. Make a plan to go for a walk with your friend or partner at the end of the day, for example, instead of opening a bottle.

Create obstacles

Set up rules to slow your drinking. Mary Reid, executive director of Moderation Management, follows a simple rule that helps her avoid drinking heavily: Each glass of wine she drinks has to last at least one hour. "My strongest tool is timing my drinks," she said. "We always tell new members that we do have stop buttons, but we just ignore them."

Vanessa Kennedy, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery, an addiction and mental health rehabilitation center in Texas, tells people to alternate every alcoholic drink with a glass of water.

Change your routine

Some people drink more out of habit than an actual desire for alcohol. Try substituting sparkling water or another beverage for your usual drink. Mueller used to have a cocktail every night while watching the news. He switched to drinking a cup of tea or nonalcoholic beer while watching the news and realized he just needed something to sip. "Now I still have a glass in my hand but it doesn't have alcohol," he said. "It's almost like having a glass in your hand is the habit and not the alcohol."

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