What Is Sober September? Here’s Where The Month-Long Alcohol Reset Comes From


If you're sober-curious, or just want to spend a little time hangover-free, you may well have heard of Sober September. Like Dry January, it's a period in the year when people try to go alcohol-free for a month. Unlike Dry January, however, its origins are a little more mysterious. While history tells us that abstaining from alcohol in the post-holiday period of January is a very old concept — an ancient version of "new year, new you" — the idea of not drinking for a month in the fall is relatively new, and it might be the harbinger of a wider trend.

The idea of taking a month, or more, of not drinking appears to be rising in popularity. "People have been reaching out to me consistently about reevaluating their alcohol intake," Ruby Warrington, author of Sober Curious and founder of non-drinking club Club SÖDA NYC, tells Bustle. More millennials are identifying as "sober curious," or keen to investigate the benefits of a sober period on their lives — whether that's for a month, or over the longer term, and Dry January and Sober September provide great opportunities to experiment.

Dry January seems to have developed because of the fact that many people treat January as a period for resetting, after the excesses — alcoholic and otherwise — of November and December. For Christians, the post-Christmas period brings Lent, a time of fasting and giving up various indulgences in the 40 days before Easter. In that sense, Dry January is a new iteration of a very old tradition.

There's also research on the scientific benefits of not drinking for the first month of the year. According to 2018 research from the University of Sussex that studied people who went sober for the first month of the year, Dry January has positive effects on wellbeing and health outcomes that last throughout the next six months. A 2015 study of Dry January published in Health Psychology also discovered that participants were more capable of refusing drinks at social events after their alcohol-free month.

Sober September appears to have emerged more organically, particularly on social media, where #soberseptember is a popular hashtag throughout the month. Experts believe it may have been inspired by attempts to balance out summer partying and holiday margaritas. "September has a back to school feel, and after a boozy summer it's a month that finds a lot of people in detox mode," Warrington tells Bustle. "People also see September and October ('sober October' is also popular, in the UK in particular) as a good time to take a break from drinking before Halloween and the holidays kick in." In other words, it's a good interim period to repeat the Dry January experiment in a month that isn't typically a "party" month.

The idea of Sober September may have emerged in England with the charity Cancer Research UK, which was credited with creating it in 2016 and now hosts "dryathlons" year-round to raise money for cancer research. In the U.S., Yahoo Health suggested in 2018, it may have become seriously popular because it coincides with the start of the new school year. Either way, it now stands alongside Dry January as a time to reassess your drinking after a period of social events and relaxation. "After taking any time off over the summer, it can be extra helpful to commit to a month off alcohol to regain clarity and back on track with career goals," Warrington says.

Sober September is becoming more well-known as a concept. One study by students at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2019 mentioned Sober September as a potential concern to craft brewers, because the popularity of sobriety with millennials could affect their profits during the September period. However, there's no solid data on exactly how many people worldwide are adopting Sober September or how it's affecting their sobriety, because the concept is still pretty new.

Sober September could be just the beginning. "I feel like 2019 as a whole has been a watershed year in a move away from alcohol as our social drug of choice," Warrington tells Bustle. The Atlantic reported in 2019 that alcohol-free cocktails have become easier to find in chic bars in Manhattan, as millennials — and, as they come of age, Generation Z — become less enthused about drinking in general. Sober September may become more and more popular — so if you're thinking about a reset before Halloween, you definitely aren't alone.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).

Source: JR Thorpe at NIH/NIAAA

Photo by Derick McKinney on Unsplash

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