The secret to just one drink
A new book claims it can teach you how to drink less in seven days. A sceptical Victoria Young heads to a bar and gives it a try
Anyone who has successfully completed Dry January - and I speak as a veteran - might already be familiar with the dashed hopes that so often follow the initial triumph of an alcohol-free month.
It's easy to imagine that abstinence will have transformed you into a naturally more moderate drinker and that you will never again drink with the abandon of years gone by.
The reality, though, is that most people move from Dry January straight back to their habits of old - the reasons for which are more complicated than you'd think.
"Not drinking for January is relatively easy," says hypnotist Georgia Foster. "But if you haven't changed your emotional relationship with alcohol you tend to default to whatever your drinking habits have been in the past."
People drink more than they'd like for many reasons, says Foster, whose new book Drink Less in Seven Days is accompanied by an audio programme of hypnosis.
"A lot of my audience are 40-plus and highly functional. They might be overwhelmed financially and a bottle-and-a-half of wine switches the anxiety off. They might drink after a hard day at work; because they are single; or because they are exhausted by parenthood. The drinking is often done at home, so it's not seen, and they can't stop the cycle of drinking too much."
One of the most common reasons why people drink is to silence their "inner critic", Foster explains, and to quell anxious thoughts. "Alcohol is a good coping mechanism because it shuts down the critical part of the mind. When you're calm, you drink less quickly because you don't need to neck your drink to calm you down. So drinking less is about training your mind to be calmer before you drink."
I don't consider myself a "problem drinker". I usually have a few dry days a week, and have been known to give up for a month here and there. But, being an all-or-nothing type, I've always envied those moderate folk who can just have one. When I drink, it is with enthusiasm: at the weekend, a bottle of wine with my husband or friends can easily turn into two, and I often drink more than I feel I "should".
But even though I know that I am prone to anxiety - and that alcohol makes me feel less anxious - I have never stopped to analyse my emotional state right before drinking. Nor have I ever linked that to how much or how quickly I drink - or, for that matter, tried to alter that state before drinking, which is what Foster's hypnosis recordings aim to do.
The week before I went to see her for a private hypnosis session, I listened to one of her two 25-minute hypnosis recordings every other day. I also tried her five-minute hypnosis "blast" before meeting a friend for a drink.
Lying down, eyes closed, and listening to dreamy music and Foster's mellifluous voice telling me that I don't need alcohol to calm myself down, and to "think before you drink", is undeniably relaxing, which is exactly the aim.
It's not just anxiety that makes people drink too much. Boredom, shyness, money worries, and fear of intimacy are all reasons given by the clients that Foster has helped over the past 20 years. Others think alcohol is essential to access what Foster calls the "disowned self" - the part that is wittier, sexier, or funnier than they otherwise are.
She loosely divides excessive drinkers into two types: the "Pleaser" and the "Perfectionist".
"Perfectionists" usually have alcohol-free days, often abstaining altogether because that's easier than moderation. But come the weekend, they'll go hell for leather; crucially, "their inner bell doesn't ring when it's time to stop drinking". That sounds familiar! "Pleasers", meanwhile, are more inclined to drink when they don't want to because of peer pressure.
There are other surprises to Foster's approach: although she advocates days without drinking, she doesn't recommend total abstinence, partly because it can backfire and make some people drink more. She also thinks that the checklists from some organisations of signs that you are an alcoholic - such as drinking alone, or thinking about drinking in the morning - can be unhelpful.
"Yes, if alcohol is starting to ruin your professional and family life then abstaining might be the solution," she says.
"But if at 9.30am after a difficult work meeting you're fantasising about getting home and opening a bottle, that's because your mind thinks that alcohol is a good way to shut off. It's not thinking about drinking in the morning that is the problem - it is stress and anxiety."
Often, just assessing what it is that makes you reach for a glass naturally makes you more moderate.
I had a chance to put this into practice a few days after my hypnosis session when, after a stressful work meeting, I noticed a real and present urge to have a drink - and quickly. That simple act of recognition made me opt for a cup of herbal tea instead and to talk my stress through with my husband, rather than drink it away.
Some of Foster's advice is simple, like alternating each drink with a glass of water (during hypnosis she refers to this as Dowo: "drink one, water one"). Water helps your body to metabolise alcohol, stops you trying to quench thirst with wine, and keeps you hydrated so there's less chance of a hangover. Obvious, right?
So when I had some friends over on Saturday night I kept the Dowo rule in mind. I found myself drinking more mindfully.
I enjoyed some wine but ended the evening sober - and happy.
Then again, a few days later it was my book club. What can I say? Sipping cold Prosecco over a heated and hilarious debate with friends, I got carried away. But I also had a thoroughly lovely time without feeling guilty, because you can't fail at Foster's programme, which is all about "progression, not regression" - meaning that the past does not dictate the future, and it's possible to change your habits.
Hypnosis is not a magic wand but I'm definitely rethinking my habits. Has it turned me into a moderate drinker? Let's just say it's a work in progress.
'Drink Less in Seven Days' by Georgia Foster is published by Red Door (£14.99)
10 ways to cut your tipples change
1. Write down how you feel before drinking to help you understand what causes you to have more than you'd like.
2. Have a big glass of water before your first drink (so you aren't trying to quench your thirst with gin!).
3. Have a protein snack - such as some nuts - in the early evening to help stem sugar cravings.
4. Build enjoyable alcohol-free moments into your day, like coffee or a walk with a friend you normally meet for a drink.
5. Tell yourself that just because you have always done something doesn't mean you always will.
6. Before an evening out visualise yourself at the end of the evening feeling sober, and remembering all your conversations.
7. Alternate each alcoholic drink with a glass of water.
8. Steer clear of friends with whom you drink too much.
9. Go to a party, don't drink and see what happens. You might actually be surprised to discover that you can still be witty!
10. Avoid "unconscious" drinking: those glasses that slip down so easily while you are writing emails or chopping vegetables. Instead, chop the vegetables or write the emails first and then have a glass of wine - and savour it.