May is Mental Health Awareness Month, offering an opportunity to reflect on the role alcohol plays in our life and how it impacts our mental health. Alcohol problems and mental ill-health are closely linked. Research shows those of us who are heavy drinkers are more likely to develop mental health problems. It’s also true that individuals with severe mental ill-health are more likely to have substance abuse issues, like alcohol use disorder. This may be because we ‘self-medicate’, meaning we drink to deal with difficult feelings or symptoms.

In order to take care of our mental health to the best of our ability, it is important we take a step back and consider our drinking. We can be more mindful about our consumption by following some of these tips:

Think Before You Drink

“The first step to evaluate our drinking is to ask ourselves why we’re having a drink,” [Bocknek, Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology at Wayne State University]says. “Alcohol plays a pervasive role in our culture, so it’s easy to make drinking issues seem less problematic. It’s important to remember that the problem can be invisible.”

Be Mindful of Red Flags

“Are you finding that you’re starting to drink by yourself, hide your intake, or use alcohol as a coping mechanism?” Dr. Elizabeth Bulat, Medical Director at Henry Ford Maplegrove Center asks. “Notice when you’re feeling irritable, overwhelmed, or anxious. When these feelings arise, take deep breaths and remain present and aware in your body.” Experts also recommend adopting a mantra.

Take a Break

Try going a week without alcohol and see how you feel. You might find your sleep is better, your energy is higher, and your scale reads a pound or two lighter. Use the time to think about what motivates you to drink. Is it because you feel overwhelmed or stressed out? “The reason alcohol works as a coping strategy is because it dulls your senses and forces you to relax,” Bocknek says. Instead, explore healthier ways to relax, such as going to the gym or meditating.

Find Healthier Alternatives

It’s easier to give up a bad habit when you replace it with a healthy one. Seek out new hobbies and activities, and invest more time in your relationships, connecting with friends and family on FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype. “Journaling, drawing, instruments, cooking — these are all effective distractions,” Bulat says. You can also sip a glass of water between drinks, or consider switching to a tasty mocktail from the burgeoning non-alcoholic beverage industry.

Plan Ahead

Cutting back can be tricky when alcohol is part of your social life, so set your intention before you arrive. “Are you going to have one drink and hold it all night?” Bocknek says. “Is your goal to not touch alcohol at all?” Tell your friends that you’re having a sober night. “Saying that out loud and starting the conversation can give you the positive feedback to pursue your goal.”

Talk to a Friend/Coach

How do you know when it’s time to seek help? “The main question to ask yourself,” Bocknek says, “is whether alcohol is inhibiting the life you would like to be living.” You can seek help from a therapist, the Reframe community, a Thrive Coach or a friend who can serve as your accountability partner. “Therapy is very effective when you are unsure whether alcohol is impairing your life and need a safe space to explore the question,” she adds. “Do not wait until it’s an emergency.”

Are you worried alcohol may be negatively impacting your life? Rethink your drinking and  take our free quiz and see.