If Sober September Is Triggering For You, Here’s How Experts Suggest Coping

by JR Thorpe
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Drinking may seem like it's less popular than ever with the rise of the Sober Curious movement, or the popularity of months like Sober September or Dry January. These movements offer people the opportunity to re-examine their drinking habits, and may offer longer-term health benefits. But for people who live with alcohol or substance use disorder, or who are sober all year round, hearing about months like Sober September can be triggering.

"People who struggle with sobriety need to be prepared for Sober September and Dry January," psychotherapist Dr. Stella O'Malley tells Bustle, because these months encourage "lightly [giving] up the drink for the month," when for many people that simply isn't possible. If you struggle with those feelings, you're not alone.

Sober September, Dry January and other booze-free periods are based around the idea that giving up alcohol is relatively easy, and that can be seriously alluring. "The freedom of being able to give up [alcohol] whenever you wish — or being able to cut down whenever you wish — is beguilingly very attractive to people who behave compulsively around alcohol," says Dr. O'Malley. If Sober September or Dry January bring up serious emotions for you, here's how to cope, according to experts.


Be Prepared

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Right now, there are two distinct times of year where periods of sobriety are becoming more popular: the times after the winter holidays, and after summer. Experts tell Bustle that if you've experienced a disordered relationship with alcohol in the past, it's important to be aware that these times exist. "If you find it difficult to maintain sobriety then you will need to learn to pay careful attention to any and all references to alcohol," says Dr. O'Malley. "If you are prepared for whatever life throws at you, then you will be more likely to behave in a healthy and helpful manner."

This may mean that you need to avoid social media during these months or stop hanging around with people who are finding their period of sobriety very easy — and talking about it endlessly. Plot this in advance.


Think Your Thoughts Through

Sober September and its ilk can create the impression that stopping drinking is easy, but people recovering from alcohol use disorder need to remember that the message doesn't apply to them. Many people with alcohol use disorder have attempted sobriety multiple times, and experts note that when you experience substance use disorders of any kind, a casual relationship with the substance just isn't possible — even if those around you can handle it.

"I think the best thing people in recovery who are triggered by Sober September can do is to think the drink through," Anna David, CEO of Light Hustle Publishing, a New York Times bestselling author who has been sober for 18 and a half years, tells Bustle. "I know when I was early in sobriety I’d go to parties, see a glass of wine and think, 'God I wish I could drink that.' Then I’d remind myself, 'Oh, I don’t want a glass, I want six glasses, then I want to do shots and then call my coke dealer. So no, on second thought, I don’t wish I could drink a glass of that.'" While those around you might think not drinking is easy, it's valuable to be mindful that that's not the case.


Manage Your Emotions

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The distress that sobriety and alcohol use disorder inflicts is very real. "Some people may rage against a world that has inflicted this awful curse that they simply cannot just ‘enjoy a drink,'" Dr. O'Malley says. "Many people who struggle with sobriety can feel darkly envious of people who can enjoy a drink without getting totally wasted." That envy can extend to those who can give up alcohol easily for a period of time and then start drinking again without problems.

Other people can be a trap. "It is important to manage your emotions so that you don’t trigger your addictive mind into falsely believing that you ‘should’ be able to drink freely," Dr. O'Malley says. "It is more helpful to be tender with your emotions and accept that many people have burdens in life and that sobriety is a challenge that is best met without gazing at other people’s relationship with alcohol." Hard as avoiding comparisons can be, it's important to remember that each person's situation is individual.


Look For Healthy Relationships

If hearing stories about the ease of Sober September and its benefits from friends, coworkers or family are causing you distress, you may want to disengage, experts tell Bustle. "Most of us have friends and family who bring out the worst in us," says Dr. O'Malley. "Usually we can manage these relationships. However, during stressful times, it is important to acknowledge that you find dealing with certain people difficult and that you sometimes give yourself a break from the more dysfunctional relationships in your life."

Paradoxically, Sober September may cause people with alcohol use disorder to desire a drink even more, because mentions of alcohol will be more prevalent. "When life is a bit easier and your sobriety isn’t being threatened, you can probably re-engage," Dr. O'Malley tells Bustle. "It is when we are feeling fragile that it is most important to surround ourselves with the people who love and understand us best." If you can have a chat with people around you about discussing their sobriety and how it's causing you distress, that might be valuable — but you may simply want to distance yourself until the time is over.


Seek Meaning & Purpose

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Sober September, weddings, family members who don't understand why you can't have "just one drink": recovering from alcohol use disorder can be challenging when the world around you is full of pressures and reminders. One of the most valuable things you can do to resist these reminders, says Dr. O'Malley, is find a sense of personal purpose. "If we can forge meaning into our day-to-day lives, then we will find a purpose that brings us beyond a need to drink into a more contented state of mind where we feel calm, competent and better able to deal with the peaks and troughs of life," she tells Bustle. Question what makes your life meaningful and what matters to you, and attempt to focus on those aspects long-term.


Sober September can be a triggering time for people with a history of alcohol misuse, and with good reason. The sight of so many people easily going sober can foster guilt, shame, anger and cravings. If you prepare in advance and make sure you surround yourself with healthy support, however, it's possible to get through it.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).