(CNN) — Sobriety from alcohol can be good for your health and your wallet — and that phase of life when you realize those memes about hangovers at 21 versus hangovers in your late 20s or 30s actually are true.
For some people, including me, going alcohol-free is also the solution when drinking starts to harm your mental health. But doing so can create a predicament if you still want to hang out in bars, clubs or parties where drinking alcohol is both the norm — and the main thing helping you feel at ease in those environments.
As social animals with the need to belong in a tribe or community, “we get anxious in social situations because, with social anxiety, there is a sense that people will judge or reject us,” said Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist and author of “How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.”
“So we work very hard to try to conceal the things we think might make us vulnerable, the things that people might think are wrong with us,” added Hendriksen, a clinical assistant professor at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. “We worry that those perceived fatal flaws will be seen and pointed out, and we will bear negative social consequences because of that.”
Alcohol may help quiet such insecurities — that would otherwise prevent us from having unbridled fun — by disinhibiting us and desensitizing our senses, said Dr. Jodi Gilman, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
A 2008 study Gilman coauthored even found that when participants were intoxicated, MRIs of their brains showed they weren’t differentiating in their responses to the neutral or fearful faces of other people as they would when they were sober, she said. In other words, situations that would normally feel threatening weren’t during intoxication.
READ MORE: Alcohol: Do you drink too much?
But experts, and people with personal experience, have advice for how you can achieve the same mindset without alcohol.
Getting comfortable without liquid courage
Worries that people will judge or reject you can be based on fears that you’ll run out of things to say or someone will notice that zit on your forehead or your clammy hands, experts said. These thoughts can lead to feelings of incompetence and inadequacy, Hendriksen said.
Turning to alcohol for artificial confidence “is so ingrained in our culture, and it’s a socially acceptable, and even expected, form of reducing inhibitions,” she added.
But developing true self-confidence starts with recognizing the lies feeding the habit, Hendriksen said: One, that whatever we’re trying to avoid is dangerous or going to hurt us, and two, that we can’t cope with whatever curveballs social life may throw at us.
Both stem from the mindset that the worst-case scenario is the most likely one.
Feeling confident in these environments, therefore, is based on the knowledge that you can handle whatever comes up — that unlike what your brain has been conditioned to think, you can trust yourself. However, this is a lesson learned over time, and it can start with approaching your fears instead of avoiding them, according to experts.
“Just put yourself out there” may sound like a cliché, but there is a lot of truth in that saying. If you avoid situations you’re scared of due to fears that something bad will happen, your brain never gets the chance to have experiences that could turn out positively.
Millie Gooch, who’s based in the United Kingdom, used alcohol as a confidence booster for years until she stopped drinking at age 26 when she noticed how hangovers from social binge drinking were affecting her mental health and memory. Gooch is the founder of the online and in-person community Sober Girl Society and author of “The Sober Girl Society Handbook: Why Drinking Less Means Living More.”
The abrupt change in the way she socialized made her “completely uncomfortable,” she said, “because when you’ve used (alcohol) as a comfort blanket for so long, then all of a sudden your comfort blanket has been ripped away from you, you feel really exposed and vulnerable.”
But she stuck with her plan, finding that each outing was easier than the last.
Amanda Kuda of Austin, Texas, began drinking in her late teens to feel more outgoing, she said. She stopped in Dry January of 2017 when she was 31 and hasn’t looked back.
“I had to practice real courage,” said Kuda, a sober living coach and author of “Unbottled Potential: Break Up With Alcohol and Break Through to Your Best Life.”
“That meant flexing a muscle that had atrophied in my personality,” she added. “As I started to flex that muscle, I realized that ‘Hey, I’m going to stumble, and there’s going to be moments when I feel uncomfortable.’ But at the end of the event, I always felt so much more powerful for conquering it without alcohol.”
As she increasingly accumulated evidence of her own capability, she felt social life was less intimidating.
Working through insecurities with a therapist can be helpful as well, experts said — especially through cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps reframe thoughts, or acceptance and commitment therapy, an approach that focuses on accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment, Hendriksen said.
“If you’re trying to recreate skills that you have as a drinking person, that you feel confident you’ll have as a sober person, absolutely find ways to practice and get that confidence up,” Kuda said. “But also, the biggest thing to remember is if everyone else around you is drinking … their perception of what you’re doing is so diluted that you could be as wild and crazy as you want and you’re not going to stir any sort of concern.”
And some newly sober people, for example, attend dance classes to feel more outgoing at clubs or parties, Gooch said.
Making an event easier on yourself
In addition to doing inner work, you can use more immediate strategies to feel confident at events. In Gooch’s early days of sobriety, she would socialize at more familiar places or put on a “confidence playlist” before going out.
Here are a few tips and tricks for getting through a gathering more smoothly, too:
Keep a nonalcoholic drink in your hand. One thing that’s nice about drinking at social events is that constantly holding a drink gives you a physical anchor, something to do with your hands.
Focus on the positives. No matter what your “why” is for not drinking, reminding yourself of your resolve can boost your confidence about your decision to challenge yourself.
Tell people you’re uncomfortable. It may sound counterintuitive, but Gooch found that telling her friends, “I’m feeling uncomfortable, so if I’m acting a bit weird, that’s why” automatically took away the power of it, she said.
Bring a friend who doesn’t drink, either. This can help you feel less alone in your decision.
Don’t overprepare. Thinking of a few topics to discuss with people is fine, experts said, but overpreparing can make you seem stiff and prevent your brain from learning how to adapt to a dynamic situation.
Navigating social settings sober can feel scary and impossible, but Kuda and Gooch can attest to the results of giving it a try and keeping at it.
“In the long term, there’s just been so many benefits, like my mental health has been transformed,” said Gooch, who has been sober for nearly six years. “My physical health is better. I’m just a much more reliable human and a full productive member of society.”
And Kuda has discovered her personal power.
“That confidence I gained from choosing to buck the social norm is so much more than the fake confidence I ever got from alcohol,” she said, “and every aspect of my life has transformed since then — from my emotional well-being to my professional success to my personal health.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use disorder, call the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s helpline 800-662-HELP (4357) for treatment referrals and information services. The international service Crisis Text Line provides a live, trained crisis counselor via a simple text for help.
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