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Abstinence Or Moderation: Is There A Correct Choice?

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Category: Prevention, Health, Recovery, Advice, Alcohol

Moderation and abstinence are two approaches that can be used for changing the role of alcohol in one's life. Listed below are factors that can determine which method may work for you and when to consider further treatment.

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Considering Your Options

A common question tends to surround alcohol consumption: is it better to practice moderation or complete abstinence? While the question seems simple enough, many factors at play like your medical history, support system, and personal motivation can influence how effective each method is at reducing unwanted behaviors. It can even determine who can participate in them.

Before deciding whether you want to embark on an abstinence or moderation-based journey, it’s essential to pinpoint your condition and desire to quit drinking. It’s important to note, too, that not everyone considering these approaches has an alcohol use disorder (AUD). If you view yourself as someone who would like to cut back on how many drinks you have a week, then moderation may be best suited for you. However, if you find yourself struggling with regulating how much alcohol you drink in a day or week, an abstinence-based approach may be necessary for changing your drinking habits.

The Two Approaches

Abstinence-Based Treatment

Many treatment facilities and support groups aim to help individuals achieve and maintain long-term sobriety through abstinence. Alcohol addiction treatment programs can guide individuals through a safe and effective medical detox, followed by counseling that targets the reasons behind addiction.

Most facilities, like inpatient rehabs, use a zero-tolerance approach, meaning that no use of any substance is allowed. Rehab facilities achieve this through random urine drug screens, group treatment programs, and care coordination. As a result, many have been able to find and maintain sobriety.

How do abstinence support groups work? Support groups based on sobriety, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), find success through fellowship. AA works on social interaction where members give each other emotional support and practical tips to refrain from drinking. Research even suggests that fellowship can help more people achieve sobriety than therapy. This is because not only is it beneficial to be surrounded by those who share a similar goal to you, but it can also be validating to witness others’ struggles that mirror your own.

Those who should consider abstinence over moderation include those who:

  • Are recovering from an alcohol use disorder or are unable to control the amount they drink.
  • Take certain prescription medicines or over-the-counter medicine.
  • Are pregnant or may become pregnant.
  • Have certain medical conditions.

While research shows long-term benefits to abstinence, this approach can leave out those who want to change their drinking habits but are not ready to abstain completely. Many treatment facilities require that their “clients” remain substance-free, which may deter those wanting to adapt their relationship with alcohol.

Moderation-Based Approach

“Harm reduction” strategies, or moderation techniques, set more flexible goals in line with patient motivation. These goals differ from person to person and range from total abstinence to reduced alcohol consumption. It is important to note that moderation techniques work best with those concerned with their drinking habits but who are not diagnosed with an alcohol addiction.

Drinking in moderation can teach individuals better drinking habits without eradicating alcohol from their lives. Moderate drinking can be achieved through keeping track of how much you drink, pacing yourself when you drink, avoiding drinking with heavy drinkers, and pinpointing your heavy drinking triggers.  By eliminating the sometimes daunting notion of zero-alcohol use, many find a moderation-based approach more attainable in their daily lives.

Research by psychologist Stanton Peele also suggests that individuals regularly quit their substance addictions through moderating their consumption, usually through a “mindfulness-mediated process.” Mindfulness can be a therapeutic tool to separate people’s identities from their addiction. This idea does not suggest that recovery is as simple as “mind-over-matter,” but Peele believes that people can set an intention to quit in line with their values without the need for inpatient or outpatient treatments.

When To Consider Treatment

For some, their decision to cut back on or abstain from drinking is connected to a desire to be healthier, save money, or reestablish their views on their alcohol consumption. These are all valid reasons, and many can accomplish their goals without needing a treatment center. However, a thin line can divide when it’s appropriate to seek treatment or when moderation or abstinence is enough.

Moderation or abstinence can be a viable tool for adapting ones’ relationship with alcohol when safely achieved. However, for heavy drinkers and those with an addiction, reducing the number of drinks they consume without supervised help can lead to unintentional alcohol withdrawal.

Symptoms of withdrawal can include anxiety, confusion, heart palpitations, increased blood pressure, shaking and tremors, and insomnia. These symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, so it is imperative to understand your relationship with alcohol to avoid withdrawal.

Furthermore, when alcohol begins to take priority over friends and family, work responsibilities, or personal health, it may be time to consider a treatment plan. Understanding your relationship with alcohol is easier said than done, but there are some signs to look out for if you or a loved one are dealing with alcohol abuse. Knowing the warning signs can be critical in determining when to seek treatment.

Signs that point to alcoholism include:

  • Frequent binge drinking.
  • Inability to perform at work or school.
  • Decreased interest in hobbies.
  • Denial of excessive alcohol use.
  • Unable to cut down or stop using alcohol.
  • Perpetual mood swings.

You Determine Your Path

When it comes to finding the best approach to changing alcohol’s relationship in your life or deciding that there are more severe issues at hand, it’s important to remember that your journey is not a “one-size-fits-all.” There isn’t a singular treatment option that will suit everyone.

While it can seem daunting to practice abstinence, limit your alcohol use, or seek treatment, you can find comfort in the fact that there is no definitive “correct” way to get where you want to be. The best course of action is the one that will work the best for you.

There are bountiful resources available to you if you are considering treatment, a support group, or even tips on how to moderate or abstain from alcohol. You have already made the crucial first step of evaluating alcohol in your life. Contacting a treatment provider can help you determine the next steps in your journey.