After hitting your 21st birthday (and maybe a little bit before that), “socializing” and “alcohol” start to feel synonymous. Drinking seems to be everywhere—at work events, parties, family gatherings, even yoga and paint nights. This is why, if you’ve decided to cut back or stop drinking alcohol, any social situation without some trusty liquid courage can bring up feelings of nervousness, anxiety, or stress.
But you’re not alone. “More and more people are ‘sober curious’ these days, meaning they’re exploring the idea of choosing sobriety,” says Kelly McKenna, licensed therapist and anxiety specialist. “Alcohol is an easy way to numb our feelings, which leads to concerns about going sober, such as whether there are any fun drinks without alcohol, if you can ever go out again, or uncertainty of how to relax after a hectic day at work.”
So how do you handle social life without alcohol? You may be tempted to decline any and all invitations where you could feel peer pressured, awkward, or even out of place without an adult beverage in hand. But you don’t have to hide from social situations forever.
Whether you’re sober, sober curious, or just want to cut back on drinking, we spoke with experts on how to navigate social situations (and enjoy life) as a sober person. Spoiler: It’s totally possible to give up alcohol without giving up your social life.
If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol addiction, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for assistance finding support and treatment resources in your area.
Remember the Benefits of Not Drinking Alcohol
The choice to drink or not drink alcohol is a personal one, but there are plenty of benefits to cutting back or abstaining. You don’t need to tell everyone you’re with about these benefits all the time, but they may be useful to keep in mind for yourself.
- Better physical health: The Lancet “No level of alcohol consumption improves health ” View Source improves health. (No, not even that daily glass of red wine we were told to drink for “heart health” in the aughts.) And drinking alcohol puts you at CDC “Alcohol Use and Your Health” View Source of several conditions. These range from the relatively minor (hangovers) and extend to more major things, like injuries, CDC “Polysubstance Use Facts” View Source , heart and liver disease, a weaker immune system, and cancer. Quitting helps reduce your exposure, and thus your risk.
- Better mental health: Alcohol can also have a negative impact on mental health. These problems include learning and memory problems, dementia, poor school performance, depression, anxiety, social problems, unemployment, alcohol use disorders, or alcohol dependence. When you cut back or quit, your mental health may improve.
- Better impulse control and judgment: Alcohol increases your risk of giving in to CDC “Why Drinking Less Matters” View Source , poor decisions, and later regret. Choosing to forego alcohol in social settings can help you keep a clear mind.
- Better mood and increased energy: Alcohol Harvard Health Publishing “Sedative effects of drinking can also initiate other physical responses in the body” View Source like serotonin and dopamine, which are the hormones that make you feel good and regulates your energy. When these hormones are depleted, you may feel drowsy, lethargic, and moody. This can also interfere with your ability to get a good night of rest. Alcohol consumption is associated with insomnia, breathing problems in your sleep, and increased need to get up and pee at night. When you stop drinking, you should feel more energized during the day and get better rest at night.
- Better bank account: There are only so many $20 espresso martinis a person can buy. The bill at the end of a night of drinking can be steep. By abstaining (or opting for a few-bucks-cheaper mocktail), you’ll save.
Know that “No Thanks” Is A Powerful Statement
You don’t owe anyone an explanation for your choice not to drink. “Get comfortable with ‘no thank you’ being a complete sentence,” says Sarah Chotkowski, a private practice clinical social worker who specializes in substance abuse. “It can be tempting to over-explain your reasons for declining a drink and launch into a long explanation that leaves you feeling embarrassed. Practice saying ‘no thank you’ and just ending the sentence there.” You can practice saying it in the mirror and with friends—as long as your “no” is non-negotiable, people will move on.
If someone is really pushing you, you can simply add “I’m not in the mood,” or ““I’m happy with [seltzer/lemonade/literally anything else].”
Set Boundaries In Advance
For acquaintances, a simple “no thanks” should be enough. But you may need to take a clearer stance with people with whom you have close relationships. Before attending social events, set up boundaries for people who may push you to drink. “It is important to be specific, have a reason behind it, and a consequence if the boundary is crossed,” says Howard Barker, B.S., Director of New Life House, a community for sober living. Specific asks can include asking friends not to offer you alcoholic drinks or asking them not to drink around you until you feel more comfortable being sober.
If you’re going to a house party, one way to ensure you’ll have access to a zero-proof beverage is to bring your own. This could be a pack of your favorite seltzer or a specialty non-alcoholic cocktail. We’ve tested a bunch, and love De Soi’s non-alcoholic apéritifs.
Use The Buddy System
When attending an event where alcohol will be present (and prevalent), it can be helpful to bring a friend who’s aware of your sobriety or is also sober. This way, they’ll be there as a support system if you start to feel uncomfortable.
Have An Exit Plan
You may also opt to go into a social event with an out in mind. Check in with yourself regularly. If a social situation is no longer enjoyable or you’re feeling anxious, don’t be afraid to step out or leave an event entirely. “It takes time to build up your tolerance for being at social events without alcohol. So, before you arrive, give yourself an excuse to leave or set a time limit,” says McKenna.
Surround Yourself With Supportive People
The people you hang around can have a big impact on your sobriety and social life. New sober friends will understand what you’re going through, while old friends that you used to drink with may not. Chotkowski recommends telling people up front. She says, “[My sobriety] is one of the first things I tell people about myself. It helps me weed out acquaintances that are heavy users or judgmental from the get-go, so I don’t waste my emotional energy on people who don’t deserve it. Being up front has also led me to fellow substance free and sober curious folks.”
Find Structured Social Events—And Be Selective
It’s helpful to avoid environments that are centered around alcohol, like bars, clubs, or bottomless mimosa brunches. There are plenty of social activities to explore, such as:glow bowling, putt-putt golf, outdoor sports, hiking, and movie or museum nights. If you’re not sure where to find people who don’t want to drink, search “sober social groups near me” or check for Meetup groups centered around sobriety or non-drinking activities. (Just be aware of the group’s full plans—if a hiking club ends every trek at a brewery, that may not be the best bet.) “Picking up a new hobby that you love and people to do it with is a great way to socialize and make new friends,” says Barker.
Be Gentle With Yourself
Most of us start drinking in our early adult years. After that, almost all social events seem like reasons to drink, and navigating them when you don’t drink can feel weird. But just give yourself time. You can think of socializing sober as a new skill, one that takes time, effort, and persistence to feel comfortable. Right now, it’s OK if you have to leave some events early, skip others, or take baby steps wherever you can.
Remember to practice self-care, such as regular exercise, good nutrition, getting enough sleep, and addressing mental health, all which can help you avoid drinking. Wherever you’re coming from, it’s a process—and you deserve to be proud of your journey.