What to Do If Dry January Didn’t Work for You

A woman walks among alcohol bottles.

Verywell / Julie Bang

Every January, my therapy office receives calls from people who say something like, “I planned to stop drinking for Dry January but it was harder than I thought. I need help.”

January is the month many people take part in what’s known as Dry January as a way to examine their relationship with alcohol. For some, the month’s trial away from alcohol inspires them to change their habits moving forward.

But for others, an attempt to give up alcohol might prove too difficult. And a failed attempt–or a serious struggle–to quit drinking might be the first indication that drinking has become a problem.

If you attempted Dry January, congratulate yourself for giving it a shot. Even if it didn’t work out the way you intended, the experience can still be worthwhile. 

Why Didn’t It Work?

If you felt like Dry January wasn’t successful, examine why it didn’t work out.

Some people say they craved alcohol more than they thought and they just couldn’t stop drinking. Other people say they caved to the pressure to drink at work functions or social events. 

And in some cases, withdrawal symptoms make people realize they’re physically dependent on alcohol. In these cases, quitting cold turkey might have serious consequences, including seizures or even death. If you have withdrawal symptoms, seek medical attention right away. 

What Did You Learn From It?

Whether you made it the whole month without alcohol or you caved in and had a drink on the first day, you can learn a lot from your experience with Dry January. 

If giving up alcohol wasn’t too hard, you might have learned there are some benefits to living without it. Maybe you slept better or you had more energy because you weren’t hungover on the weekends.

If you struggled, you may have also learned a bit about your relationship with alcohol. Perhaps you drink in social settings when you feel uncomfortable or maybe you drink because you feel pressured to do so by those around you.

Here are a few things therapy clients have told me over the years about what Dry January taught them:

  • I’ve been depending on alcohol to relieve my stress.
  • I eat healthier when I’m not drinking.
  • I am uncomfortable socializing without having a few drinks first.
  • My friends and I really don’t have much in common aside from drinking.
  • I don’t know what to do with my time if I’m not drinking.
  • My skin looks better when I’m not drinking.
  • It’s easier to stick to my other good habits, like going to the gym, when I’m not drinking.
  • I feel more motivated to get things done when I’m not drinking.

Write down whatever lessons you learned from Dry January and hold onto that list. Regardless of whether you drink again when the month is over, you might soon forget your experience. And your brain might try to convince you that giving up alcohol for a month was a waste of time.

Look Out for Dangerous Assumptions

Sometimes, the lessons people glean from Dry January aren’t accurate though so it’s important to make sure your assumptions aren’t dangerous.

Just because you made it a month without alcohol doesn’t mean drinking isn’t a problem for you. People with substance use disorders often take breaks from drugs or alcohol just to prove to themselves or others that they don’t have a problem.

But your drinking habits might still be problematic. Someone who drinks three times a year but gets so intoxicated that they nearly die might have a bigger issue than someone who consumes alcohol on a weekly basis.

It’s important to examine the risks and problems alcohol may cause for you. Does it interfere with your relationships? Has it caused any legal difficulties? Has it led to any issues in the workplace? Do you have any health problems that stem from drinking or are exacerbated by alcohol? 

If alcohol has caused problems for you and you can continue to drink, you may have a problem even if you were able to avoid alcohol for one month.

Another dangerous assumption might be that one month without alcohol undoes the damage you’ve done to your body the other 11 months out of the year if you drink heavily. While a month-long detox from alcohol can be good for your body and your mind, having other alcohol-free times throughout the year might be important too.

Create a Plan for Yourself

Your experience during Dry January might inspire you to create some changes. You might decide to cut down on your drinking by doing certain things, like skipping wine with dinner a few nights a week or limiting your consumption to a certain number of drinks per week.

Take what you learned and develop your plan for change (if, in fact you want to change your drinking habits). 

You might also focus on healthier habits you want to add (not just on cutting back on drinking). For example, going to the gym on Saturday mornings might discourage you from drinking on Friday nights. Or, deciding that you’ll drink a glass of water in between drinks might prevent you from overdoing it.

Address Your Brain’s Resistance to Change

Changing your drinking habits can be tough. And your brain is likely to resist the changes at first. Be on the lookout for thoughts like:

  • My problem isn’t that bad.
  • I don’t have time to get help.
  • I can’t afford to get help.
  • I’ll be lonely if I don’t go drinking with my friends.
  • I’ll be too nervous to socialize. 

Plan ahead for the times when your motivation is likely to decrease and your brain will try to talk you out of sticking to your plan. Write down a list of all the reasons why you want to stick to your plan and when you’re tempted to indulge, read that list. 

Get Help If You Need It

Changing your drinking habits is tough and you might find you need a little help doing it. There are a lot of different ways you can get help, ranging from free online support groups to inpatient rehabs.

People are often surprised to learn there are medications that can help curb alcohol cravings or that there are online therapy services available for substance use. Learn about your options so you can decide which one sounds like the best fit for you.

A great place to start is by calling the SAMHSA National Hotline. It’s confidential and the hotline is available any time of day or night. 

You can also discuss your concerns with your primary care provider. They may assist you with finding the right level of care to address your drinking. 

There are also plenty of books, podcasts, apps, and forums that are excellent resources. You might find it helpful to hear other people’s stories.

If you’re struggling to change your drinking habits, you’re not alone. And it doesn’t mean you’re weak or immoral or anything like that. But it might indicate that you could benefit from some support or professional help. Be open to exploring your options and if one strategy doesn’t work well for you, try something else. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.