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“Why Not Dry March?” — Thoughts from Director Denise Hien, PhD

by Sam Leibowitz-Lord

January can be a tough month under any circumstances. The cold and dark days, fresh emotions  from the holiday season, and the anxieties brought on by the actual, living weeks of the New  Year can combine together into a particularly stressful period of time.  

For many, January also represents a specific kind of challenge; Dry January, as it’s known, is  typically a month of abstinence from substance use. Whether that means sacrificing a glass of  wine at dinner, throwing out a pack of cigarettes with the intent to quit for good, or seeking  rehabilitation and counseling to get the root of addictive behaviors, Dry January can be a hard  reset many find uplifting and therapeutic.  

January 2021 was a little different. This January, Americans faced a global pandemic combined  with a violent riot in Washington DC over a contentious Presidential election. As such, many addiction and substance use experts are saying that Dry January has  become even harder then normal.  

“We’ve been in a year of incredible strain and stress. For many people, there’s been more than  that, [there has been] actual trauma,” says Denise Hien, PhD, director of Rutgers University’s  Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies.  

Dr.Hien spoke with WebMD News about how COVID-19 has changed the day-to-day realities  of substance use.  

“In COVID, we have to pivot — the word has become part of our vocabulary,” Dr.Hien says.  “It’s the concept of being flexible.”  

With work and school moved online, different localities having a patchwork of different  regulations on the use of public space, and a continued lack of clear direction from the federal  government, COVID-19 has forced most to completely restructure their daily routine.  

The effect of shifts like this can have an impact on the body and mind, no matter what the  substance is or how frequently used. What matters, according to Dr.Hien, is how substance use has wired the individual’s internal clock.  

“Alcohol activates the reward system in your brain. Once you start having that every day at 4,  you’ll start looking forward to it,” she says. “Not everyone will develop an addiction, but  everyone will have their physiological reward system activated.”  

For many, this has caused a crisis of ethics and personal resolve regarding substance use. Some  find drinking at home or before the end of the work day a violation of their personal regulation system. The same is true of total abstinence from substance use.

As the body struggles to  accommodate to changes in environment, time, and social interactions, feelings of anxiety and  discomfort can prompt what to many feels like self-medication with alcohol and other  substances. When this interferes with a promised period of abstinence like Dry January, it can  lead to feelings of shame, doubt, and a lack of self-confidence, which can make the need to  self-medicate even more protracted.  

Dr.Hien, however, stresses the need for flexibility and accommodation in unique times. Strict  senses of time and environment during an unprecedented, global crisis don’t assist individuals in quests for abstinence or  greater self-control. Instead, Dr.Hien urges the same kind of flexibility seen in other areas of post-lockdown life.

“I can’t visit family this holiday, but I will next time. Or maybe you drank less during that time,”  Dr. Hien says. “It’s all positive. You build on your effort, learn from your mistakes. ”Dry  January doesn’t have to be Dry January, but Dry March. Why not?”

Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies

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