Five ways to relax without alcohol

Glenys Jackson
Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK
25 November 2021
Next review due November 2024

Do you sometimes find yourself reaching for a glass of wine or a bottle of beer after a long day? It can be tempting to use alcohol as a way to unwind. In fact, alcohol has been described as the UK’s favourite coping mechanism.

Drinking alcohol can make you feel more relaxed at first. But these feelings don’t last very long. And drinking too much alcohol can actually interfere with the things that help to keep you calm - like a good night’s sleep.

The good news is there are lots of other things you can do to help you relax. Here, I’ll share some of the easiest, and most enjoyable, ways to unwind without alcohol.

woman lying on a couch reading

Why you might use alcohol to cope with stress

Perhaps you have an alcoholic drink to unwind after work, when you’re out with friends, or after putting the kids to bed. At first, drinking alcohol acts as a sedative and makes you feel tired and relaxed. It may also make you feel more confident and at ease in social situations.

But, once the initial feelings of relaxation wear off, you can be left feeling anxious. You might also find you:

  • feel tired or sluggish
  • gain weight
  • feel sick or vomit
  • experience headaches and dehydration
  • struggle to sleep well


Five simple ways to relax without alcohol

There are lots of things you can do to help you feel relaxed. Try the ideas below to help you get started and see what works for you.

1) Find a type of exercise you enjoy

Physical exercise is great for both your physical and mental health. It can also help to reduce feelings of stress. The key is to find a form of movement which you really like. This could be anything from dancing, to darts. If it makes you smile and helps you to get lost in the moment, then chances are it can help you to relax. Doing something that helps you to focus on the present moment can help you to clear your mind of your to do lists and daily demands. And it doesn’t need to be strenuous. You might find you like to unwind with an evening yoga routine or take a gentle walk in nature.

2) Do something that makes you laugh

Laugher can help you to feel better, both physically and mentally. It can help to lower your stress hormones, such as cortisol. At the same time, a good laugh may help your body to produce feel good endorphins – hormones which make you feel joyful and happy. So, tune into what makes you giggle. It could be a funny film, a favourite book, or calling a friend who always sees the funny side of things.

3) Get lost in a good book

You might find yourself scrolling social media or watching TV with a drink in the evening. But getting lost in a good book could help reduce stress and bring you into the present moment. Reading can focus your mind on something other than your worries. One study showed that reading for 60 minutes after a stressful event reduced readers’ heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels. So try putting your phone away in the evening and reading instead.

4) Take some time out

You might be busy juggling work, family and friends, along with lots of other commitments and demands. So, it’s important to take some time out for yourself when you can. You could try doing a guided meditation, some gentle breathing exercises or taking a nice warm bath. These types of activities can help your nervous system to relax too.

Your nervous system has two different states –fight and flight, and rest and digest. When you are under stress, the fight or flight system kicks in – leading to symptoms such as a racing heart. But when you relax, through deep breathing, or yoga – you switch into rest and digest, which slows your heartbeat and is good for your body.

5) Challenge negative thoughts

You can’t avoid stress completely. But what you can do is change the thoughts you have in response to stressful situations. One way you can do this is through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of talking therapy that can help you to challenge your negative thought patterns and cope better with stress. For example, if you often find yourself having a drink when you’re worrying about work, CBT might help you to reframe these worries.

You might find a combination of CBT and mindfulness techniques could help you. If you can reduce your stress using these tools, then you may be less likely to turn to alcohol.

Planning ahead

You may find it helpful to plan ahead for times when you might feel stressed, and have some of these healthier options available. For example, you could try having your exercise gear laid out or downloading a new book onto your reading device.

If you do choose to drink occasionally, it’s important to stick within the recommended weekly limits. This is 14 units spread over the week, with at least 3 alcohol free days each week, for both men and women.

If the amount or frequency that you drink concerns you, then it is important to seek advice and support from your doctor as soon as possible. They will be able to help you take control of your drinking and refer you to relevant services.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Glenys Jackson
Glenys Jackson
Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK

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