'I spent my twenties downing cheap white wine, now as a mum mindful drinking has helped me cut back'
If you find yourself nursing a hangover after the office Christmas party, you're not alone. Writer Rosamund Dean has researched the best ways to reduce your drink intake ... and they're all in your head, she tells Julia Molony
It is as much a part of the festive season as turkey and all the trimmings. For many of us, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without that killer hangover that rolls over from mid-December all the way through until New Year's Day. Traditionally, it is served with generous side portions of remorse, mortification and shame.
This time of year, there seem to be endless compelling reasons to throw your health goals out the window. The grim weather, the enforced family time, the thought of having to maintain a conversation with Kevin from IT at the office bash about something other than the fact that your desktop has crashed again. And then there's the simple, human desire for a bit of indulgence - the glittery frocks, the open fires, the cosy chocolate-box idea of Christmas - all of them inducements to let rip. To say 'what the hell' and reach for another glass of wine.
But there is another way. One that might be better for your health, your bank balance, your personal relationships and your sanity. That might help if you want to have fun this party season but also get through it with relationships intact, waistline preserved and free of embarrassing blunders.
Welcome to the concept of mindful drinking.
Journalist Rosamund Dean has become something of an expert on this art. Her book, Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, is due to be released on December 28. It is aimed, she says, at people who are not alcoholics. Who do not need to go cold turkey or into recovery, but who are increasingly aware that their relationship with alcohol is less than healthy. For those, as she puts it, who don't necessarily have "A Problem, but instead a lower-case problem", and want to know how to change those habits for good.
By her own admission, she is an unlikely advocate for moderation. She knows first-hand what it's like to be gripped by the fear, after waking up with a sore head and a knot in your stomach the morning after the office Christmas party.
"I spent my teenage years in a beery haze in the ladette era of the 1990s, and my twenties downing cheap white wine as a keen young journalist," she writes. "I have vomited on Tube platforms and out of taxi windows. I have done more than my fair share of drunk texting.
"I had made repeated attempts to cut down," she explains. "I would do things like deciding that I'm not going to drink in the week - I'm just going to drink at weekends. Or I would say one glass of wine a day is ok, but I'm never going to get drunk. I would try all these different things and they would never work."
An important shift took place when she had her two children; her son, aged three, and daughter, born last spring. "Maybe it was partly having kids, because you just can't cope with drinking as much. You can't lie in anymore or sit there staring at your computer screen waiting for your hangover to go away. You have to deal with a squawking, noisy child. It's much more difficult to be hungover, so that was an incentive."
Earlier this year, she set out on a quest to find out how she could improve her relationship with alcohol. She studied the research, spoke to experts in addiction and behavioural scientists, and brought her own experience to bear. The key, she concluded came down to being mindful. But what is mindful drinking?
It is not, as you might suspect, simply meditation with wine.
Meditation is one component to mindful drinking, though. But mindfulness and meditation are not quite the same thing. You can practise mindfulness without meditating, as Dean writes, "by being present and bringing awareness to what you're doing".
She advocates both, arguing that they provide all sorts of benefits; improved willpower, reduced anxiety, better emotional regulation. There are, she explains, no end of books, online programmes, classes and apps for your mobile phone which anyone can use to bring mindfulness into their lives. Some of these involve meditation, others don't. Dean's own personal favourite is the application Buddhify.
There is some evidence that practising mindfulness has a direct effect on influencing behaviours, particularly in relation to impulse control around alcohol. In her book, Dean refers to research carried out at the Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit at University College London, which found that heavy drinkers taking part in the study who were instructed how to practise mindfulness "reduced their drinking by about the equivalent of a bottle of wine in the week after being given the instructions".
But on top of incorporating the practice of mindfulness into one's life, there is a crucial, second component to mindful drinking which is about being conscious. It's about examining your drinking behaviour extremely closely - tracking it, monitoring it and then adjusting it. It is, says Dean simply, "the opposite of drinking without thinking".
First, you need to do an inventory. Go through your current behaviour with a fine-tooth comb. Use a unit calculator app to work out how much you are putting away on a typical night or week, without even being aware of it. Dean suggests examining exactly at what point you reach that sweet spot between nicely tipsy and drunk, by going into the bathroom with your phone after every alcoholic drink and taking a selfie - a clever way to track when it all starts to go wrong.
Christmas, she agrees, presents its own particular challenges to a person who wants to cut down on booze. This time of year parties come thick and fast. The first step to approaching them in a healthy, balanced way, comes down to planning. "Thinking ahead," she says, "about where you are going to go, who you are going to see. What the drinking situation is going to be. What you are going to drink. How much you are going to drink. If you think about all of that in advance and have a really, really specific plan, that just makes such a big difference because there are so many points during your evening where you can slip up."
Spontaneity is the enemy of mindful drinking. This is because with each drink, our willpower is lowered. The only way to tackle our in-built propensity to cave after the third glass, is to have done all decision-making in advance. It's important, facing into party season, to look now and identify which events you are going to allow yourself to drink at and which you are not going to allow yourself to drink. And to break it down even further into the exact number of drinks you will have, and whether they will be beer, wine or whatever.
"If you don't make a plan, if you think, 'Oh, I just won't drink too much tonight'. Then you get there and someone offers you a drink, and someone else offers you another one and you sort of think, well, I'm here now and I'm drinking and then somebody might get shots and before you know it you are hammered," Dean says.
"Whereas if you have your strict plan - that you are going to have a soft drink first, or you're not going to get involved in rounds or, you're only going to drink beer.
"Whatever your plan is, make it very strict and stick to it. And if you're going to have soft drinks, then plan in advance what your soft drink will be as well. Because if on the spur in the moment you are caught off guard and somebody offers you a glass of wine, it's too easy to say yes.
"The more anal you can get about the planning, the better," she says. "Because the more detail you go into and the more of a plan you have then the less likely you are to just drink anyway."
Dean herself adheres to the rule of three in this regard. Her golden figure for moderate drinking is three drinks per night, on no more than three nights a week. There's no magic, one-figure-fits-all solution, she says, the important thing is deciding on your own limits and sticking to them.
There are particular triggers, specific to this time of year that can scupper the best laid plans. It's important to be aware of them in advance and to have laid out clearly in black and white the reasons why it's better in the long run not to be derailed by them. Or in Dean's words, being clear about your incentives.
Take social anxiety, for example. "It's difficult with social anxiety because you feel like alcohol cures it, and it kind of does in the moment because it numbs your inhibitions. But long term, it actually makes it worse. Because it's numbing your inhibitions. It's not that you are braver or less anxious. It's actually that you are just less aware of what you're doing.
"The more times you go into a social situation without alcohol, that's the only way really, long-term to beat social anxiety. The more times you do it the easier it will be." In this way, apprehension about socialising sober is flipped into the incentive to learn how to socialise easily and confidently without alcohol.
What about the minefield that is being stuck indoors with family for days on end? That's enough to turn even the most sanguine of us to the bottle, surely?
"Again it really comes down to awareness. And knowledge about what alcohol does to you. If you are in those situations where you are with a difficult relative or extended family member.
"Then if you do drink, you're more likely to get upset, you're more likely to get angry. You're more likely to say something that you are ultimately going to regret. And you are less likely to get through that situation and think, I handled that pretty well, I was a grown-up there.
"So it's kind of knowing that and thinking about it in advance which gives you the fortitude to get through it."
Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life by Rosamund Dean will be published by Orion Books on December 28