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What you need to know about Dry January

  • Health and Wellness
  • Students
  • School of Medicine
  • University News

For many, the dawn of a new year means making resolutions. But, despite our best intentions, we usually abandon our resolutions by February.

Why not, then, try out a change in behavior for just one month? In 2012, the British charity Alcohol Change UK started the Dry January health initiative to encourage abstinence from alcohol at the start of the new year.

Though the month is already underway, anyone can apply the lessons of this initiative anytime to begin exploring sobriety. Here’s what Pitt experts say about taking that first step.

An invitation for introspection

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted alcohol use patterns among young adults. While fewer social events have meant fewer opportunities for social drinking, the overall volume of alcohol consumed has actually increased.

“I think that this may partly be related to an increase in solitary drinking. We've done some research on solitary drinking and found that, as you might expect, drinking alone is a characteristic that’s common in people who have alcohol problems,” said Duncan Clark, professor of psychiatry in Pitt’s School of Medicine and the associate director of the National Consortium on Alcohol and Neurodevelopment in Adolescence.

He describes Dry January as a chance to self-evaluate one’s alcohol use.

“If someone finds discontinuing alcohol to be difficult, or if their attempts to discontinue are unsuccessful, then this exercise may have uncovered some characteristics of an addiction.

“Problems related to alcohol use are formally defined as ‘alcohol use disorder.’ Problems can include alcohol-related difficulties with family, friends, work or school; risky behaviors when intoxicated such as drunk driving, health problems or depression and anxiety. When discontinuation is followed by trouble sleeping, restlessness, anxiety and physical symptoms like sweating and racing heart, these responses indicate withdrawal, which is caused by physiological alcohol dependence,” Clark said.

The benefits of taking a break

Clark also noted that abstaining from alcohol for even just a month can positively impact health in many ways:

  • Those abstaining from alcohol in the short term may experience improvements in memory and concentration.
  • Though discontinuing alcohol may initially make it tough to fall asleep, eventually, sobriety will result in more refreshing and higher quality sleep.
  • Reducing alcohol-related calorie intake is a healthy way to lose weight.
  • Early stage alcohol-related liver damage, which can occur with binge drinking, will reverse with abstinence.

Many avenues to get support

If you’re a student who’s concerned about your drinking or other substance use, you can find help 24 hours a day, seven days a week by contacting the University Counseling Center. You’ll speak to a clinician to develop a plan to address your individual needs.

The center’s staff also supports students who believe their friend or loved one has a problem with drinking. Jay Darr, director of the counseling center, gave these tips to be kind to someone struggling with substance abuse:

  • Let the person talk and listen to them without judgment.
  • Reassure them that support is available.
  • Don’t try to minimize problems or shame the person into changing.

A healthy campus, a healthy you

Since 2011, Pitt’s student code of conduct has included a medical amnesty process, which states that all students are expected to seek immediate assistance for themselves or others in situations where someone is experiencing an emergency due to alcohol or other drug use.

“Medical amnesty fosters an environment both on and off campus where students help each other and take care of each other. If medical amnesty is the reason someone calls for assistance to save a life, then it benefits all of us,” said Matthew Landy, associate director of student conduct.

To learn more about substance abuse resources offered by the counseling center, call 412-648-7930.


— Nichole Faina