Here's What It Actually Means to Be Sober Curious
Experts break down the idea behind the movement.
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Over the past decade or so, there's been an increased interest in sober living. Jeremiah Gardner, MA, LADC, director of communications and public affairs for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, explains that society's curiosity with sobriety (known as being "sober curious") started as a challenge for those who felt they'd partied a little too hard over New Year’s weekend. “First there was ‘Dry January,’ when people could share on social media about how they were taking a break from booze. Now there's ‘Dry July’ and even ‘Sober October,’” Gardner, who is a person in long-term recovery from alcohol use disorder himself, explains to Parade.
Then, Instagram accounts such as Sober Girl Society and Sober Nation started amassing followers and Ruby Warrington, one of the faces of the movement, published a book dubbedSober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.
The trend has spread, with people throughout the country and world routinely challenging each other to see what life is like without alcohol and sharing that experience together, and the “sober curious” movement was born.
What does the term “sober curious” mean?
Family and addictions therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, author of Fragile Power, explains that, unlike a person who depends on sobriety for their emotional or physical health, “sober curious” describes a person's relationship to sobriety that is consensual. “Those in the first group need to abstain from drinking alcohol to regain their health. Those in the second group abstain from drinking to enhance it,” he says. In other words, for all intents and purposes they can drink, “but they've looked at the evidence as it relates to alcohol consumption and made a pragmatic decision that the costs of drinking outweigh any benefits they get from their alcohol consumption.”
Gardner adds that there is less of an all-or-nothing approach associated with sober curiosity. “Being sober curious is really about experimenting with sobriety or taking intentional breaks from alcohol for the health benefits. Sometimes, it may lead one to pursue a more lasting, long-term sobriety, and other times it’s just a pattern of intermittent breaks,” he says.
However, he does note that sometimes there is a “blurry line” between people who identify as sober and those who are sober curious. “My experience is that people experimenting with sobriety are generally experiencing some problems with drinking, and many—if they were to see a professional—might have a mild or moderate alcohol use disorder,” he notes. “And some may have a severe substance use disorder that is illuminated by the difficulty of sustaining their experiments with sobriety for the intended time.”
Why has the movement picked up steam in the past few years?
The sober curious movement has become increasingly popular due to a few factors. “First, Ruby Warrington's book made it into a tangible concept that people could form a community around. This is critically important because human beings love to organize around a common interest,” Dr. Hokemeyer says.
Second, the pandemic both led to increased alcohol consumption and caused people to seek out healthier outlets than drinking. “Innovative and creative people were already looking for ways to change the trajectory of their lives towards healthier ways of being in the world when COVID hit,” he adds. “In its wake they became acutely aware of the need to enhance their well-being by reducing their consumption, editing out non-productive activities and protecting their mental and physical health. For these folks, exploring sobriety as a lifestyle choice was a natural action to take.”
Gardner also believes that people are embracing the concept with open arms, as it is a less intimidating approach to addressing addiction. “I think way more people have problematic relationships with alcohol than we realize. But the stigma of having addiction or alcoholism keeps a lot of these problems uncontemplated and unaddressed. People just keep progressing until it’s severe, the problems mount, and they have no other choice but to get help. It’s like waiting to eat better until you have a heart attack—and it’s one reason we’re in the midst of the worst addiction and overdose crisis in our history,” he says.
“What the sober curious movement is doing is making it OK—no stigma attached, and even a bit cool—to address alcohol use earlier in the progression of one’s use. That’s something we’ve always needed, and now we have a cultural frame for that. By normalizing sobriety, we’re also making the world more comfortable and safe for people who are in sustained recovery from addiction to participate in social activities with others. To me, that’s a significant additional benefit.”
What does being sober curious entail?
While there are no strict rules attached to it, the lifestyle attached to sober curious has three aspects per Dr. Hokemeyer. The first concerns the person's mental health. “This means they are focused on taking actions that enhance their emotional well-being by avoiding substances and activities that cause them to experience depression and anxiety,” he says. “Empirically, we know that alcohol is a depressant that frequently causes people to experience anxiety when the alcohol leaves their system.”
The second aspect involves the person's significant and most intimate relationships. “People who choose to be sober curious find that by choosing to abstain from alcohol they are simultaneously choosing to enhance the quality of their intimate relationships,” he explains.
Finally, there's the social aspect. “Because the sober curious movement has found such a robust audience, people who partake in it find themselves part of the healing tribe, a community of people united towards a common interest and against a common foe,” he says.
Why people are sober curious
Lyndsay Morris, founder and CEO of Generation Wellness, explains that her journey to sober curious has been ongoing for the past few years. After spending her twenties drinking in bars and clubs with her friends and seeking the "short-term high" that alcohol offers, she picked up the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill in 2016, which explores how prioritizing health can improve wealth.
"It completely changed my life and really forced me to question my choices and examine what I was focused on," she explains. A few of those things? What happened when she drank and her motivation behind it. "It was a short-term pleasure to get high, but there were lots of negatives, including hangovers and the choices I made."
When she started abstaining from drinking she noticed she had more energy to direct on more important things, such as her family, friends, career and health. Early in the pandemic, Morris contracted COVID-19, and has been suffering long-term health issues as a result of the infection. As a result, she opted to stop drinking altogether. "I can find my own high in life and don’t need a substance to get there," she says of her decision.
Related: Best Mocktail Recipes for Dry January
While Karen P., 44, hesitates to use the word "sober," she has been experimenting with a sober lifestyle for the past five years. After reading two books, This Naked Mind by Annie Grace and The Sober Diaries by Clare Pooley, she became more mindful about the physical and mental behaviors associated with her drinking. "I have come to the decision that the positives of abstaining far outweigh the cost of drinking," she says, noting that she rarely takes a sip of alcohol anymore. She maintains that podcasts—Sober As a Mother and This Naked Mind—have been incredibly helpful on her journey, too.
Tony D., 40, has been living the sober curious lifestyle since long before the term was coined. While he never identified as an alcoholic, during his early twenties as a DJ he "partied pretty hard," he admits. "I had my share of hangovers. Then, honestly, one day I just decided that it wasn't really for me anymore—like I grew out of it. I didn't like the feeling of not clearly remembering what happened the night before or the feeling of being sick in the mornings."
While he still has the occasional taste of the homemade red wine his dad used to make or a sip of his wife's drink, for the most part, he abstains completely. "Later in life, just to further solidify my decision, different health issues arose that would complicate things if I did drink. So a big part of my decision was just not really getting anything out of it, and then eventually, it just became better for my health."
Related: What Is Dry January?
Dana Mincer, DO, Liberty Urgent Care doctor and a TikTokker who identifies as “sober curious” explains that she enjoys the occasional half glass of wine or hard kombucha, solely because she likes the taste of these paired with foods. “However, it is rare,” she notes. Her decision to lead a mostly sober lifestyle has to do with a variety of factors, including having both personal and professional experience with addicts, the toxicity and health issues associated with alcohol, a desire to be “present and in the moment,” and her responsibilities as a parent.
“Children learn by modeling,” she explains. “They are usually watching and listening, even when you think they are not. I think being intoxicated in front of my children, especially given the fact that one for sure has a genetic tendency toward addiction, is a poor example for them.”
Instead of using alcohol as a method of releasing steam, she suggests taking a yoga class, exercising, or engaging in meditation or breathing exercises. "You can do these things at home, using YouTube as a free resource. And if your children are around, that’s a bonus, because whether they participate or not, they see you modeling healthy habits."
Related: Can You Drink Alcohol After the COVID Vaccine?
Should you join in on the “sober curious” movement?
The great thing about the “sober curious” movement is that no commitment is involved, so there is not a reason why you shouldn't explore it.
“I think the sober curious movement is brilliant,” maintains Dr. Hokemeyer. “It's intentional rather than reactive. It's based on personal strength rather than personal weakness. It builds communities of wellness. It allocates personal resources in ways that yield exceptional returns. It's a way that people can claim ownership of their bodies and reject social and commercial standards that dictate who they should be.”
Gardner adds that he thinks sobriety, whether as an experiment or a long-term choice, is about being unstuck and free from the trappings of alcohol "so you can be healthy and present, experience the adventure of life more fully, and more consistently pursue personal growth and development.
However, if you do struggle with substance abuse, you may need a more structured program of recovery, maintains Dr. Hokemeyer—ideally one program with "a robust social support component and be based on a program of clarity and abstinence rather than trending curiosity."
Next up: How Does Alcohol Impact Heart Rate?
Jeremiah Gardner, MA, LADC, director of communications and public affairs for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation
Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, author of Fragile Power
Lyndsay Morris, founder and CEO of Generation Wellness
Dana Mincer, DO, Liberty Urgent Care doctor and TikTokker
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