Someone recently asked me, “How can I retrain my brain, so I can stay sober through wine o’clock?” And I thought, what is it with the 5:00 alcohol habit?

We have wine o’clock, beer time, and my favorite—happy hour. Our culture has this hour so normalized that we don’t need the actual time for permission to drink because, as the song reminds us, “it’s 5:00 somewhere.”

Society Has Normalized Alcohol

Let’s face it, society normalizes alcohol in general.

  • Anheuser spent approximately $41 million on its Superbowl commercial last year. These ads perpetuate the idea that football and beer go hand in hand. For the beer company, however, the price was worth it because they knew that it would create sales.
  • Directly related to the Super Bowl advertising experience is tailgating. This activity features grilled hot dots and beer in the cooler, and big companies know this.
  • There’s also pressure to drink from well-meaning friends eager for you to have fun with them. When you tell them you aren’t drinking, they often counter by giving you a “you’re weird” look.
  • We give a bottle of wine as a hostess gift at dinner parties assuming the host will pop the cork with dinner.
  • As children, we watch parents come home from work and head straight to the fridge for a beer or glass of wine. Yep, this happens right around that 5 o’clock hour.
  • We learn early by watching our parents drink glasses of wine during dinner. In fact, some families offer the children a taste from time to time or grape juice in a wine glass to make them feel special or like a “grown up.” This glorifies drinking in young minds.
  • Society bombards us with alcohol so much that when we have to face the decision to test the waters during our teen years, we often feel the pressure to say yes.

So begins our journey into addiction.

 

Drinking Through Wine O’clock Is Normal

We accept alcohol as part of our normal lifestyle, but there’s something about the five o’clock hour that leads 13% of Americans to consider that time as an okay hour to start drinking for the night. It’s normal to come home after a long day’s work and have a glass of wine with dinner. It helps us relieve stress making it difficult to get past that hour and into the night without feeling tempted to drink.

 

It’s not hopeless, however, and there are several things you can do to get past that particularly difficult hour.

Stay Sober Through Wine O’clock by Examining the Habit

After years of practice, drinking at 5 for many does, in fact, become a habit that they don’t even think about. With the brain on auto-pilot, they find themselves standing at the kitchen counter pouring that first glass of the night.

If this is you, put down the bottle and grab a pen and paper.

The first thing you should know about habits is that you can’t eliminate them. You can only replace them by creating new habits. This means that staying sober through wine o’clock takes conscious effort at first. Your brain likes habits and actually rewards you with dopamine (the happy hormone) for completing them. Habits can, however, be replaced, so that is what you will need to do to retrain your brain not to want to drink at 5 o’clock.

Charles Duhigg studied habits and says the key to changing or replacing a habit is to identify the cue (or trigger), routine, and reward. Here’s an example:

Cue

Around 5:00 you get off work, drive home, and start cooking dinner. Somewhere in this routine, you thought, “I’ll have a glass of wine.” To find the cue so you can stay sober through wine o’clock, identify what happened just before the thought. Consider the time, place, people, activity, or a combination of these factors. Do this for several days in a row to see if you can narrow it down to one repeating factor. That’s probably your cue. 

Cue’s can’t always be eliminated. I mean, how do you know when someone is going to say something that triggers you. You can, however, prepare and guard against them.

Routine

If you are not quite ready to quit drinking, you may love this part. It is a reason to continue with the 5 o’clock habit for a few more days for the sake of discovery. Go ahead a follow through with the routine taking note of everything you do from the beginning to the end of the habit. Again, do this for several days in a row to see if you can find commonalities or differences in the habit.

If you have stopped drinking, please, do not backtrack. Instead, log the routine anyway, identifying specifically the points at which you struggle most.

Reward

A habit develops because there are rewards involved. Think about the mouse in the maze. It navigates that maze for two rewards. The activity offers rewards by satisfying their curiosity and their desire for the cheese at the end of the maze. For drinking to become a 5 o’clock habit, there had to be a reward before the habit developed. When you can determine that, you can then change the habit so that drinking is not involved but the reward associated with it is.

One reward you will get is dopamine. That is your brain’s way of saying you did well. Yes, your brain rewards you for completing a habit—even if the habit is drinking. In the case of alcohol, however, your brain starts rewarding you the second you start anticipating and making plans to drink just like you might get excited about enjoying a shopping spree.

There are also other rewards involved in the 5 o’clock wine habit. They include relaxation, being off work and finally home, and socializing. None of these rewards require alcohol, but the habit is so deeply ingrained that the association we associate alcohol as the remedy to the problem.

Furthermore, many people use alcohol to numb themselves from past traumas, shame, and a feeling of unworthiness. Five o’clock could trigger this because, without work and the business of daily activities, you suddenly have time to ruminate on the past and all the things that went wrong during the day. Alcohol slows down the brain’s ability to think (and race) numbing you to your emotions.

Putting it Together

After you have logged the routine for a few days, look over your notes to see where consistencies in the habit exist. Find elements of the habit that you can change. Once you have done that, your next step to staying sober through wine o’clock is to experiment with a few changes until you come up with something you can develop into a new habit and then start working towards rewiring the habit.

Stay Sober Through Wine O’clock with These Habit Tweaks

Some of your drinking habits will need a complete overhaul. Since getting sober, I have avoided the beach, one of my favorite drinking places, and I still get triggered there. On the other hand, some habits can’t be completely changed. After all, you will need to go home eventually. In these cases, making small changes may help.

The following are a few small things you can adjust:

1. Change the Drink

Since a large part of your routine involves drinking something while cooking or settling in after work, it might make sense to focus on the drink to stay sober through wine o’clock. The difference is your new drink will not involve alcohol.

Some options include non-alcoholic wines and beers, mocktails like a virgin bloody Mary, or fruit smoothies. I recently discovered black cherry and cranberry ginger ale that look and feel very much like one of my typical drinks from when I used to drink. Aside from the lack of alcohol, they taste very similar but better.

Additionally, part of my drinking routine was the environmental element. I liked martinis but only in a martini glass. I love bloody Mary’s but mostly on Sunday mornings relaxing on the back porch. Your 5 o’clock sparkling grape juice can come poured from a bottle that resembles a wine bottle into a wine glass offering very little change to the routine.

For some people, however, the similarities may be too triggering. If that is the case, you might want to experiment with drink recipes that have a high nutrition value such as a fruit or vegetable smoothy. In this case, the drink changes into something that no longer resembles or includes alcohol. At the same time, your mindset shifts to see the activity as a reward to your body by giving it a very healthy alternative.

2. Give Yourself a Distraction

Often, when we can’t have what we really want, our brains start to obsess over not getting it. In these cases, it usually takes no time at all to break to the pressure to have that drink. This is especially true when the cravings hit.

On the other hand, if you keep your brain busy, you don’t give it room for mindless thinking to kick into gear, and the obsession has difficulty taking hold. Instead of sitting around thinking about alcohol, try focusing on something else.

For example, you can meditate. This has the added benefit of relieving stress, but it will also help you clear your mind, and a clear mind might make room for the obsession to work its way in. At the same time, the practice helps you learn how to control your thoughts. This skill helps you through any obsession, not just alcohol.

You can also try exercise or walking with a friend, watching a very intriguing movie, or reading a good book. I suggest a self-help book on the topic of sobriety or mental health. You can even take on a new hobby like painting or journaling. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it provides a good enough distraction to get you past the cravings.

3. Get Connected

The opposite of addiction is connection. This can include both a connection to the self through meditation or journaling as mentioned above or a connection to other people who can help you stay sober through wine o’clock. Both will help prevent relapse.

Some other connections to self include spending time in nature and working on your spirituality. This encourages a connection to the world around you. At the same time, connections to other people might mean taking a yoga class, talking to a supportive friend, or attending a meeting with other people in sobriety (A.A., Smart Recovery, Celebrate Recovery, etc.).

4. Change Your Mindset

Your mindset may be the most difficult part of the habit to change to your 5 o’clock routine, but it can also be the most important.

What if I handed you a glass of black sludge, told you it was ground-up spider juice, and pointed out to you that it had the same alcohol content as a glass of wine? Would you still want it? I’m assuming the answer to that is no.

Now, what if I also offered you a glass of non-alcoholic wine? Which would you choose? Again, I’m going to make an assumption. In this case, you had two choices. One with alcohol and one without. If you chose the one without alcohol, you could also reason that maybe alcohol is not what you really want.

Now think of other things you don’t really want. Could you be tempted to suddenly crave them? Would you ever run home from work and stand at the refrigerator searching for that dose of the flu?

Shifting how we think to stay sober through wine o’clock can be very difficult, especially if you have a closed mindset. However, it’s not impossible. For me, that happened when I realized that there were things that I wanted more than a few hours of relaxation followed by a restless night’s sleep and a morning with my head in the toilet. And they were things that I could never get if I continued to drink.

What You Can Think About Instead

Instead of thinking about how good that wine will taste, start dreaming of building a successful career, relationships with loved ones, and buying a new car with all the money saved by not drinking. Over time, your brain will find clarity, and you can start focusing on your purpose in the universe, your love life, and soul-lifting peace. These things feel a whole lot more appealing than a nightly glass (correction: bottle or two) of wine.

As you are doing the work on changing your routine so you can stay sober through wine o’clock, consider what it is that you really want. Then start making plans to get it. What could you have if alcohol were not in the picture?

And don’t forget to remind yourself how much better you will feel in the morning without that poison lingering in your system.

Staying Sober Through Wine O’clock?

 

How to Get Help

It’s just wine. Everyone has a glass with diner. No problem, right?

Wrong. For some, one glass turns into two and two into a bottle. When that happens nightly, you have developed a problem.

It’s easy to convince yourself that your wine o’clock drink doesn’t mean you are an alcoholic. If you want to see how, check out “Let’s Talk about Why Alcoholics Lie to Themselves“.

Furthermore, many of us spend years trying to figure out this alcoholism thing. It’s no wonder considering the myths that shroud alcohol.

If you have been asking yourself, “Am I an alcoholic?” and are ready (or maybe only sort of ready) to know the truth, check out “Back to Ground Zero,” a course that answers many of the questions I had during my sober curious days.

 

Not Sure You Have a Problem with Alcohol

If you are considering whether or not you have a problem with alcohol, it might be worth looking into. This free workbook may give you the answers you are looking for.

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