‘Mindful Drinking’ Is the Latest Health Craze. Here’s What It Is

9 minute read

Kate Atkinson was tired of spending her weekends—the only respite from a demanding public relations career and the grind of modern life—hungover. “It’s the ultimate typical Saturday for the working person to wake up feeling foggy and ill,” Atkinson says. “I wanted my days of not feeling horrendous back.”

In pursuit of that goal, Atkinson, 35, began to zero in on her drinking habits. She started going to CLUB SÖDA NYC, a social network that helps New Yorkers develop healthier, more intentional relationships with alcohol through booze-free events and workshops, and things began to change. She still drinks sometimes, but says she’s “become more mindful of my decisions and where they might lead.”

Atkinson is far from alone. These days, a chasm is widening in American culture: Binge drinking and alcohol dependency rates are higher than they’ve ever been, but, on the flip side, a growing number of individuals are drinking less, at least some of the time. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that the percentage of Americans who said they had used alcohol within the past month took a small but statistically significant decline between 2014 and 2015, the most recent year with available data.

Off-and-on drinkers like Atkinson can fill their calendars with alcohol-free events, like those from CLUB SÖDA, which consistently sells out its 200-person gatherings; Daybreaker, which hosts sober early-morning raves for as many as 700 people in 17 cities globally; and Sober Grid, a 100,000-users-strong social app for people who don’t drink. Others use mindfulness—a focus on the present moment that recent research has found to be effective in helping heavy drinkers cut back—and similar strategies to booze when it suits and teetotal when it doesn’t. And this month, more than 5 million people around the world will atone for excess holiday drinking through Dry January, a month-long experiment in sobriety. Together, to borrow a phrase from CLUB SÖDA cofounder Ruby Warrington, these disparate cohorts are the “sober curious.”

“There are many shades of gray when it comes to alcohol addiction,” Warrington says, “and perhaps there can be shades of gray when it comes to sobriety, also.”

CLUB SÖDA and its ilk aren’t necessarily helping people get sober. Warrington and her cofounder, Biet Simkin, are careful to state before each event that CLUB SÖDA is not an addiction recovery group, and Simkin estimates that only 30% of attendees never drink. The group isn’t even angling for people to drink less, though that’s often the result. Instead, it’s more about cultivating “mindfulness around drinking, and questioning what effort are they actually putting toward bliss in their life, other than shooting mezcal down,” Simkin says.

MORE: How a Short Meditation Can Help People Drink Less

That message resonated with Ebenezer Bond, 41, who started going to CLUB SÖDA two years ago, after realizing how often he drank while entertaining clients as the cofounder of an experiential marketing firm.

“I just got to a place where I wanted to stop having alcohol be such a presence in my life,” says Bond, who now typically limits drinking to Friday and Saturday nights. “I still like alcohol, but I wanted to bring more focus into my life, and less allowance for distraction and covering things up.”

While research suggests that about three-quarters of Americans drink at least occasionally, a recent international survey of 72,000 respondents found that almost 33% of people wanted to reduce their booze consumption, for reasons ranging from physical health to sexual regret to embarrassment. That mindset seems to be gaining steam, especially for younger generations: 72% of Millennials said they “disapprove” of people ages 18 and older drinking one or two drinks nearly every day, according to research from Monitoring the Future.

However, other Nielsen research shows that Millennials, who make up 25% of the legal drinking population, drink 35% of beer in the U.S., 32% of spirits and 20% of wine.

Just as the reasons for wanting to cut back on booze vary, so, too, do the methods for doing so. Mindfulness is one popular technique.

At the mindful drinking classes Lodro Rinzler runs at his New York-based meditation studio MNDFL, students take time to smell, taste and fully experience their cocktails, with the goal of staying present and analyzing the physical and psychological effects of drinking. “The goal is more that they would have a healthier relationship to [alcohol] than to drink more or less,” Rinzler says. “That said, many people do notice, ‘I will meet with that friend and instead of having one, I have four drinks.’ They end up saying, ‘I don’t need to do that.’”

MORE: How Meditation Helps You Handle Stress Better

Sarah Bowen, a clinical psychologist who has studied mindfulness and substance abuse at Oregon’s Pacific University, says that these mindfulness techniques—many of which are secularized interpretations of Buddhist traditions meant to boost internal awareness and clarity—can be tools for helping people avoid problem drinking. In one of Bowen’s studies, published in the journal Substance Abuse in 2009, mindful exercises helped people with alcohol dependency avoid relapse longer than standard treatment practices.

Bowen says the kind of sporadic abstinence practiced by the sober curious can foster mindfulness and intentionality, shining a valuable light on bad habits. “It’s hard in the midst of a pattern to mitigate,” she says. “See what it’s like to stop for a couple weeks, or even a month, so you can kind of have a clean slate and then reintroduce alcohol more intentionally.”

Stopping alcohol use for a month is an increasingly common choice, popularized through initiatives like Dry January and Whole30, which eliminates grains, dairy, sugar, legumes and alcohol from the diet for a month.

Miriam Dowling, 31, first tried Whole30 to cut back on processed foods. But after finishing her first round on the diet, she discovered that dairy, gluten and other common food culprits didn’t bother her; it was alcohol that she wanted to eliminate. Dowling, a nurse practitioner who lives in Maine, says she was never a heavy drinker, but she’s now almost entirely sober, save for the occasional hard cider and a glass of wine at her wedding.

“I just didn’t really want to drink alcohol anymore, so I didn’t really reintroduce a lot of alcohol [after Whole30],” she says. “For me, it just isn’t worth the calories. It doesn’t make me feel good. It makes me feel congested, which is strange, and I don’t really like the feeling of feeling dizzy or buzzed.”

Chicago-based registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner says that many of her clients have also given up alcohol for health reasons. “A lot of people will say, ‘Not only is it saving me calories, it’s saving me money from going out. It’s saving me from bad decision making, both in choice and portion of my food,’” she says. Many of Blatner’s clients also say they feel more rested and motivated to exercise.

Drinking is linked with a heightened risk of chronic conditions including liver disease, certain cardiovascular diseases and at least seven different kinds of cancer. And the more you drink, the research suggests, the higher your risk of developing these illnesses. People—who are savvier than ever to fitness, nutrition and mindfulness, thanks to a $3.7 trillion wellness industry that continues to swell—are increasingly unwilling to ignore those associations, Blatner says.

“People want to go gluten-free, people want to go sugar-free,” she says. “Alcohol is not going to be forgotten about when it comes to all these things people are trying to avoid.”

CLUB SÖDA’s Warrington says alcohol may also feel out of place in a health-obsessed culture. “People are investing a lot of time and money in their well-being—physical, emotional, mental—and then drinking a bottle of rosé on a Friday night,” she says. “For more and more people, the obvious disconnect is being revealed.”

But while it’s easy to draw a connection between sober curiosity and health consciousness, the reasons for giving up booze aren’t always physical. According to the American Psychological Association, 57% of Americans are stressed about the political climate, 66% are stressed about the future of the nation and 34%, more than ever before, are stressed about their personal safety.

Bowen, the substance abuse researcher, says people are realizing that drinking is a “false refuge,” especially in times of legitimate anxiety.

“You think it’s going to give you fun and relaxation, but it’s not really what it looks like,” Bowen says. “People are starting to wake up to that and say, ‘I want something different. I want real health, real clarity and real stress relief, and I’m not going to get that from alcohol.’”

This confluence of factors provides the push for people like Atkinson, the CLUB SÖDA devotee, to say goodbye to their glasses and tumblers—from time to time, at least.

“The conversation shouldn’t just be limited to the wellness industry, nor should it be labeled a trend. It’s deeper than that,” Atkinson says. “At a time that global, and especially American, politics are in crisis, it’s surely a time to stay woke, not wasted.”

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com