2020 Was Going To Be The Year Of The Sober-Curious Movement. Now What?

Intentional drinking is in danger of falling by the wayside during the coronavirus pandemic, as alcohol becomes our go-to comfort.

From the clinking cocktails of Zoom happy hours to Ina Garten’s giant cosmo-for-one, there’s plenty of evidence that during the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing is leading to an uptick in social (and even antisocial) drinking.

According to a recent survey from Morning Consult, 16% of adults say they’re drinking more alcohol as a result of quarantine. And per Nielsen, the week ending March 21 saw a whopping 55% rise in the sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States, compared to the previous year’s figures.

But as some leaders of the burgeoning sober-curious movement are quick to note, that’s not the whole picture.

What exactly is the sober-curious movement, anyway?

Being sober-curious means being more intentional about how, when and why you drink. It’s a movement for everyone, even those who don’t have health- or addiction-related reasons to abstain from alcohol. It’s based on the idea that asking questions about alcohol, or consuming less of it, may lead to positive outcomes for one’s health, relationships, finances and more.

Before the pandemic, new brands of no-alcohol beverages were being introduced at a rapid clip, including alcohol-free beer, kombucha and even Seedlip, a distilled nonalcoholic beverage. Recent data from Nielsen showed slowing sales growth in the alcohol category. Even the once-oxymoronic field of nonalcoholic mixology was on the rise, with the publication of several books ― including “Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason, from former Bon Appétit editor Julia Bainbridge, which is slated for publication this fall.

“People don’t drink for all kinds of reasons, and those reasons just don’t need to be a part of the conversation,” Bainbridge told HuffPost. “I’m not a fan of the term ‘sober curious,’ but I do understand wanting a term for people experimenting with removing alcohol from their lives. Overall, I think it’s great that this conversation is being made more accessible. And it’s great that not drinking is slowly becoming more normalized. My book is doing its small part to carry that forward.”

While it may seem like everyone’s drinking right now, that’s not really the case.

Ruby Warrington, who coined the term “sober curious,” is the author of Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.” “I’ve been connecting with many people in the sober-curious and recovery community, and across the board, they’re telling me they’re so happy to no longer be using alcohol as a coping mechanism in times of stress,” she told HuffPost. “I’ve had a number of people say, ‘What’s happening now is bad, but it would be terrible if I were trying to do it while hungover.’”

For Warrington, a sober-curious lifestyle begins by asking questions like: “How will this drink make me feel, and is it really a good idea right now?”

“Our ‘work hard, play hard’ mindset has conditioned us to think that any time you aren’t working is an occasion for drinking,” she said. “But ‘tools down, beers up’ can be a dangerous trap. In times of distress, you can lean into what’s happening and be present with it, or you can try to escape it — which is never a lasting solution. The sober-curious community encourages people to choose being present.”

If any demographic is more likely to embrace this message, it might be younger people. “Boomers and Gen Xers will tend to return to drinking alcohol and stay with it for a while,” said Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, a trends forecaster for the food and beverage industry. “The age groups more likely to remain sober-curious are younger millennials, those ages 23 to 25, and older Gen Z, who are in the age range of 21 to 22. They’re the newest to alcohol to begin with, so their habits haven’t been in place as long. The newer a behavior is for someone, the more likely they will abandon it during a time of stress.”

“In general, though, sober curious is a strong trend, and it will come back when we get past this crisis — just not right away,” she said.

Is it possible for the sober-curious movement to gain momentum during a pandemic?

Probably not in the short term, according to Badaracco.

“I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, and the easiest prediction I can make is that during times of stress — recession, war or what’s happening now — alcohol consumption increases,” she told HuffPost.

Supersmario via Getty Images

“When times are hard, people go back to what’s comforting or familiar — whether it’s mac and cheese or wine, beer and simple cocktails,” she went on. “People seek out sedatives as a way to take the edge off the panic. I’m not talking about addiction, but alcohol consumption does go up.”

Here’s how to stay the course right now.

While gathering at a sober bar isn’t an option at the moment, there are still opportunities for virtual connection with like-minded people. When the pandemic hit the United States, Chris Marshall ― owner of Sans Bar, the first sober bar in Austin, Texas ― was in the first leg of a 10-month national tour, for which he’d partnered with Dry Soda, a nonalcoholic beverage brand. The tour was suspended in March during an event in Portland, Oregon. Now Marshall is planning Sans Bar Where You Are, an online event to be held April 25, which will include a panel of prominent thinkers in the sober space, live music and more.

Marshall knows some people are drinking more during the pandemic. But he suggested that overconsumption is overrepresented on social media at a time when others are choosing to stay sober. “Now is a good time to examine your relationship with alcohol,” he told HuffPost. “For most of us, our routine has changed. We may no longer be stuck in traffic for hours a day, for example. Some people are using newly found time to examine parts of their life that aren’t serving them, whether it’s alcohol, stress or anxiety.”

Marshall suggested that creating new routines could be a start toward a sober-curious life. “I see people using alcohol to create celebration and break up the monotony of quarantine, but you can do the same thing with alcohol-free drinks,” he said. He also expressed hope for the future of the movement. “Every problem has an expiration date,” he said. “When this is all over, I believe the sober-curious community will have a lot of new faces in it. People are connecting authentically online, finding ways to meet challenges with a clear and sober mind.”

“If you feel drinking is negatively affecting any area of your life, you can find ways to seek help online, including through online AA meetings,” Leah Samler, a psychologist and adjunct faculty member at Pepperdine University, told HuffPost. For those who aren’t struggling with addiction, but who are sober-curious, she suggested that now might be a good time to make a change.

“We aren’t experiencing the social pressure to drink that happens when we’re socializing in bars or attending events where alcohol is the focus,” she said. “While being at home has its own set of challenges, there aren’t those external temptations that often are triggering for some people. If being sober-curious is something you’ve been thinking about, you could get in a good stretch of alcohol-free days right now.”

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