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What Sober Curiosity and Alcoholic Alternatives Can Do For Mental Health

two older people drinking water in a restaurant

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Key Takeaways

  • While sobriety cuts out alcohol entirely, sober curiosity encourages less consumption of alcohol.
  • With the rise of the sober curious lifestyle, socially geared non-alcoholic beverages have become more popular.
  • Alcohol alternatives allow for the rituals of connection and celebration while lessening the harmful after-effects.

Alcohol is commonly used as a remedy for social anxiety. And after the holidays—possibly the busiest social season—many people begin the new year by reevaluating their relationship with it. Dry January presents the challenge of going sober for a month.

But in recent years, sober curiosity, which encourages a sober lifestyle without necessarily requiring alcohol to be cut out completely, has become increasingly popular. Brands like Cann Social Tonics, Kin Euphorics and Curious Elixirs that offer socially geared, alcohol-free beverages are becoming more prominent as people still seek connection and celebration without the harmful after-effects.

Not only does alcohol negatively affect cognitive function and brain health, it can also wreak havoc on your mental health—several studies have linked alcohol use to depression. And while it is a powerful social lubricant, it's possible this could be a placebo effect linked to the ritual of drinking—research has shown that even the taste of beer without any effect of alcohol can trigger dopamine release in the brain.

If socializing without alcohol feels intimidating, alcohol alternatives offer both physical and mental health benefits while still allowing you to indulge in a "special drink" when you want to socialize or unwind.

Alcohol as Social Lubricant

Fully fledged sobriety is often chosen as a result of alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, but sober curiosity can stem from considerations of mental health, relationships and whether alcohol is used as a crutch in social situations. Realistically, it can also be difficult for many people to admit they might have a problem, so being sober curious presents a softer boundary that's more manageable.

Everyone has their own reasons for cutting down on alcohol consumption. Co-founder of Cann Social Tonics Luke Anderson cut out alcohol after his drinking started to cause problems in his life and relationships. After speaking with friends about it, he discovered many were in the same boat, and the wheels started turning for the creation of a less harmful social beverage. He argues that sobriety is a continuum.

"There are people in [Alcoholics Anonymous] or in recovery choosing not to drink because they're a danger to themself and others, but there are people who are choosing sobriety just because they’ve fallen out of love with it," Anderson says.

Rebecca Phillips, LPC

If you need social lubrication, it’s likely because there is some uncomfortable anxiety. If you learn to manage your anxiety, you no longer need to lubricate. We can clink our glasses and toast with whatever it is we’re holding.

— Rebecca Phillips, LPC

Karolina Rzadkowolska, a certified alcohol-free life coach and the author of Euphoric: Ditch Alcohol and Gain a Happier, More Confident You, agrees. She's found that more and more people are questioning whether alcohol really adds to their happiness.

"Drinking has become such an allure in our culture and it's not just about the buzz," Rzadkowolska says. "Culturally we attach status to alcohol, and we might use it to meet many different needs; for example, the need to fit in, the need to feel sophisticated, or the need to relax. So many other healthier alternatives can meet those needs though, without any negative side effects."

No one wants to miss out on the post-work happy hour, the festive celebration or the congratulatory toast just because they aren't drinking. As humans, we need opportunities to connect, unwind and have fun—these are crucial to our mental health. But what happens if we eliminate alcohol as the social lubrication in these scenarios?

Rebecca Phipps, LPC, a Texas-based therapist, never identified as an alcoholic, but adopted a sober curious lifestyle six years ago. When she noticed an enormous improvement in her mental health, she cut out alcohol completely and has been sober ever since. She notes that while alcohol lowers inhibition and can even deliver a boost of confidence, these effects quickly wear off.

"The chemical changes in your brain can shift into more negative emotions such as increased anxiety, sadness, frustration, anger, or insecurity," Phillips says. "If you need social lubrication, it’s likely because there is some uncomfortable anxiety. If you learn to manage your anxiety, you no longer need to lubricate. We can clink our glasses and toast with whatever it is we’re holding. It can be just as fun and fulfilling."

The Rise of Sober Curiosity

Whether alcohol alternatives really do deliver a healthier buzz or have only a placebo effect to thank for their success, they are gaining popularity. Anderson says he's seeing interest across all ages and genders, with individuals in their early 30s as the company's core consumers.

Karolina Rzadkowolska, alcohol-free life coach

Drinking has become such an allure in our culture and it's not just about the buzz...So many other healthier alternatives can meet those needs though, without any negative side effects.

— Karolina Rzadkowolska, alcohol-free life coach

He's been paying attention to the trends contributing to the rise in popularity of alcohol alternatives, as well. Part of it, he says, can be attributed to increased awareness of mindfulness and mental wellness, as well as greater ingredient consciousness and desire for natural and plant-based foods. The sadder part of the equation, he says, could be that we're glued to our screens. In the digital age, we're less dependent on party socialization.

Whatever the reason, more and more people are embracing sober curiosity for its mental and physical health benefits. And brands are taking note. As the use of alcoholic alternatives continues to grow, it's clear that the benefits of connection and relaxation are the real uppers, while the negative effects of consuming—or over-consuming—alcohol only bring down the mood.

What This Means For You

Having a drink in hand can make socializing feel less intimidating. But opting for an alcohol alternative allows you to unwind without the negative physical and mental after-effects.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Oberlin BG, Dzemidzic M, Tran SM, et al. Beer flavor provokes striatal dopamine release in male drinkers: Mediation by family history of alcoholismNeuropsychopharmacol. 2013;38(9):1617-1624.doi:10.1038/npp.2013.91