Everyone has a different relationship with alcohol, but often we learn that it represents a celebration. In the US, a 21-year-old’s first legal drink is an exciting rite of passage, often marking a full entrance into adulthood. People drink at parties, weddings, and other big events. We’re taught to drink to our accomplishments and the things that make us happy — like promotions, a first house, or an engagement. But we’re also taught to cope with the difficult parts of life in the same way. The message is pretty simple: if you’re going through anything, good or bad, getting a drink is probably the right way to mark the occasion.
But increasingly, people are revisiting this cultural fascination — or dependency — on substances. Gallup has been tracking American alcohol consumption since 1939, and its recent data shows that 60 percent of Americans reported drinking alcohol, down from 65 percent in 2019.
Still, the choice not to drink carries a stigma. Often, skipping beer with family or skipping the wine on a date means you harsh another person’s buzz, and it can be taken to mean you either don’t know how to have fun or you struggle with addiction. But increasingly, people are pushing back against the pressure to drink and the stigma around abstaining.
The term “sober curious” has hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok, as people share how and why they’ve redefined their relationship with alcohol. POPSUGAR spoke with several experts within the sober-curious movement about what it means and how to explore your own sober curiosity.
What It Means to Be Sober Curious
Sober curiosity means exactly what it sounds like — someone who is curious about revisiting their relationship to substances and cutting back on their intake. Though often most closely associated with alcohol, it also encompasses substances like marijuana and other recreational drugs.
“Typically someone who’s sober curious is choosing to explore what it would be like to use less or to not drink or use substances at all and will give that a try for a period of time with no commitment to forever,” says Leah Young, LCPC, a clinical manager at Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center. In this way, sober curiosity changes how much and when a person may choose to consume or abstain from substances, but it’s also a lifestyle choice as well.
Young says sober-curious people are often frustrated with how many events revolve around substances, and they may feel tired of the pressure by friends, colleagues, or society to engage with those substances. As a result, many often emphasize activities and social settings that don’t revolve around substance use, replacing barhopping with book club or happy hour with postwork yoga. They might also socialize at one of the many sober bars popping up across the country. “But people who are sober curious aren’t necessarily completely free of substances. They might try to integrate something like alcohol in a moderate or limited fashion,” Young says. The lifestyle exists on a spectrum.
Sober-curious people may also be drawn to limiting their intake because they are concerned about dependency and want to learn to manage stress, anxiety, and social situations with a clear head. In fact, Young says some sober-curious people discover their alcohol and substance addiction as they limit or take a break from their intake. If you have noticed an increased tolerance for a substance (i.e. it takes you more drinks to get you buzzed than it used to), withdrawal symptoms when cutting back (like anxiety, headaches, or the shakes), or habitually drinking more than you intended, it’s time to seek professional help. But Young says any reason to revisit substance use is a good reason, as “we don’t need anyone’s permission to stop or modify use.”
How to Start Your Sober-Curious Journey
The first step in being sober curious is, of course, curiosity. Think about your relationship to substances, how often you use them, when you use them, and why you use them. Do you enjoy engaging in substance use, or do you do it without thinking? Do you ever feel regret after using substances? Do you have mental health, fitness, or social goals that are not served by your current substance use? Then think about what you might like to change or what you’d be curious about exploring.
If you decide that you might benefit from a change, by either using substances in a more mindful way or simply taking a break from drinking, Young recommends creating a plan. Picking an accountability partner is a great first step, which may be a therapist or a trusted friend. Then create a very specific plan of what you’d ideally prefer your use to look like, taking into account frequency, amount, type, method of ingestion, intention, and whether it’s with others or alone, says Young. The more detailed, the better. Then make a contingency plan for unexpected challenges and how you’ll respond to them. For example, if you’re struggling to skip your habitual 5 p.m. drink, it may be wise to remove alcohol from the house until it’s no longer a temptation.
Making a plan helps people tailor their goals, take an honest look at their substance use, and gather data on whether or not it’s working for them, says Young.
The Benefits of Sober Curiosity
Cutting back on substances can result in a number of perks for physical, mental, and social well-being, with the American Addiction Centers citing improved brain, heart, liver, and immune-system function.
“[Sober curiosity] allows people to find a method of sobriety that works for them,” Young says. “It can help those folks who have been misusing to be more aware and intentional. It opens us up to new ways of socializing.” She notes her patients typically report “improved relationships and communication, feeling more present, improved performance at work, feeling more cognitively sharp, feeling better physically.”
Initially, though, it can be a difficult transition, as some people may be using substances to cope with anxiety or mental health conditions, and they’ll need to find new tools to manage those symptoms outside of alcohol. But in the long run, using less alcohol — or none at all — will have significant benefits, Young says.
However, it’s important to remember that being sober curious isn’t sustainable for everyone. “There are some people who need to have that black and white mentality that they simply can’t use any substance of intoxication safely,” Young cautions. For those with alcohol use disorder or drug dependency, full sobriety and counseling will likely be a necessary, long-term commitment — just limiting intake or having occasional dry periods won’t be enough.
Though for others, Young says, the sober-curious movement is “a great way to start challenging our substance-dominant culture instead of mindlessly engaging in use.”