Rosamund Dean tells Sharon Stephenson how she managed to cut down her drinking, for good.

There was one in the hot-water cupboard, another behind the sofa and one in the far reaches of the China cabinet, hidden behind a figurine of the Eiffel Tower with flaking gold paint.

And those were just the full bottles, says Janice Watson, who discovered her mother's gin stash after her mother's death.

"I didn't realise Mum's addiction was so advanced," admits Watson, who had lived under the umbrella of her mother's drinking since she was a child. "I can't remember a day Mum didn't have a gin and tonic in her hand. She had a high tolerance for alcohol, didn't suffer from hangovers and would never, ever admit she had a problem."

It's why the 40-year-old is so careful about her own alcohol intake. "I've tried to be teetotal but it never works for me and I always end up bingeing. I enjoy having a glass of wine with dinner too much to give it up completely, so I've had to find a way to be sensible about what I'm drinking and really consciously think about every drink I have."


Without knowing it, Watson is part of one of planet's fastest-growing movements — mindful drinking. Like so many of the concepts currently lashing themselves to the word mindful — meditation, eating, breathing and parenting — mindful drinking is a conscious approach to consuming alcohol.

Here's what it is: being fully aware of how each drink affects our mood, behaviour, thoughts and body, rather than mindlessly throwing back a few beers after work or cracking open a bottle of wine every night with dinner, purely out of habit (often described as auto-pilot drinking).

Here's what it's not: giving up booze completely for either a set period (e.g. Dry January) or permanently.

"Mindful drinking is thinking about why you drink and how much you drink," says British journalist Rosamund Dean, whose book, Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, details her own experiences with moderating alcohol consumption and cheerleads for others wanting to do the same.

"Most people don't want to cut alcohol out of their lives completely, including me," says the 37-year-old. "Who wants to attend a wedding, birthday party or — God forbid — a date when stone-cold sober? In today's all-or-nothing culture, where everyone is either a prosecco-gulping, devil-may-care hedonist or a joyless, clean-eating teetotaller, people seem to have forgotten that there is a middle ground. And that's what this book is about, it's for the vast majority of us who aren't alcoholics but who drink more than is healthy and want to break out of that."

Although Dean's advice is universal it's particularly skewed towards women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, a demographic she knows well, having spent the past 15 years writing for women's magazines (she's currently deputy editor of Grazia but prior to that was entertainment director of Red Magazine, where she interviewed everyone from Reese Witherspoon to Ralph Fiennes).

Rosamund Dean.
Rosamund Dean.

"Women are drinking more than ever, whether we're throwing ourselves into work, with client dinners and colleague drinks, or compulsively reaching for the wine as soon as the kids are in bed," she says. "A global study in 2016 showed that women are drinking as much as men — in many cases even more — for the first time in history. Call it the post-Sex and the City effect, but women's personal relationships now revolve much more around wine or cocktails than they did even 30 years ago."

It's mid-December when I chat to the mother of two. She's at home in Walthamstow, East London, which is shivering under a blanket of snow. Later that day in Auckland, the temperature will nudge 24 degrees. The settings couldn't be more different, yet in both cities, people are indulging in a carnival of festive binge-drinking. "This isn't an easy time of the year for mindful drinking," says Dean.


But around about now, when the "new year, new you" resolutions kick in, is an ideal time to "bring awareness to your drinking behaviour in order to improve it," she says.

This doesn't mean simply deciding you want to drink less and relying on willpower to magically do the rest. "Your unconscious mind has been conditioned over a lifetime to associate alcohol with celebration, socialising and stress relief, so you need a plan that will help you unpick those beliefs to allow you to do all those things without drinking."

Dean's plan, based on extensive research and interviews with psychologists and behaviour change experts, involves identifying the triggers for drinking, measuring how much you drink, monitoring bad habits, promoting the health and well-being benefits of making a change and, of course, introducing the practice of mindfulness — and how it can change your attitude towards drinking.

The kicker is being alcohol-free for 28 days but, Dean argues, that's key to helping you "re-set your tolerance before introducing alcohol into your life in a more moderate way".

Go ahead and roll your eyes, I certainly did. But mindful drinking isn't some hippie shtick; research from the University College of London (UCL) shows that mindfulness can help reduce alcohol intake in heavy drinkers.

Dr Sunjeev Kamboj, deputy director of the Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit at UCL, recently conducted a study, which found the 68 participants reduced their drinking by about the equivalent of a bottle of wine in the week after being given simple mindfulness instructions such as focusing on a heightened awareness of the physical and mental sensations when drinking.


"Interestingly, the subjects weren't actually trying to reduce their consumption, they were simply chosen because they drank more than the recommended guidelines of 14 units a week, with most drinking around 26 units a week," says Dean. "The reduced alcohol intake happened anyway."

Dean wrote the book while on maternity leave (her youngest is 1 in February), prompted by an awareness of the impact heavy drinking was having on her body and mind.

"I'm not an alcoholic but, like everyone around me, I drank a lot. Journalism is notorious for its heavy drinking culture, so I was surrounded by people who drank a lot every day (her husband Jonathan is also a journalist). Like most middle-class British people, I grew up in a house full of alcohol and my parents embraced the idea of wine with every meal. It took me a long time to acknowledge that I needed to cut down, that it would not only help me shift the last few post-baby pounds but also help me feel less anxious and exhausted all the time."

Dean had been flirting with mindfulness for some time and, while researching the book, realised that the practice could help manage her drinking.

"I've now got more concentration, increased energy, improved memory, greater motivation and productivity at work, not to mention extra disposable income, better skin and digestion, improved moods and a reduced risk of developing cancer. What's not to love?"

The Pied Piper of moderate drinking has a couple of iron-clad strategies to help her maintain her approach: the rule of three (drinking no more than three drinks on three non-consecutive days a week) and taking a selfie after each alcoholic drink.


"It's a fail-safe way to monitor my drinking behaviour, because while two drinks equals sexily dishevelled, five drinks equals smudged mascara, droopy eyelids and red wine teeth. It's a highly effective wake-up call."

Jumping on the alcohol-free bandwagon

Mindful drinking is a growing trend particularly among millennials, who report drinking less than their parents. In the UK, a recent study showed that fewer than half (48 per cent) of those aged 16 to 24 reported drinking alcohol in the previous week, compared with 66 per cent of those aged 45 to 65. In New Zealand, Ministry of Health figures show that the proportion of Kiwis aged 15 years or over who drank alcohol in the past year dropped slightly, from 80 per cent in 2011/12 to 79 per cent in 2012/13.

The move towards cutting alcohol consumption has been supported overseas by groups such as Soberistas and the London-based Club Soda, which runs mindful drinking festivals featuring alcohol-free beer, mocktails and sparkling water. Here in New Zealand, the group No Beers? Who Cares! (NBWC) was started earlier this year to encourage changing attitudes about how and why we drink.

NBWC regularly hosts sober socialising events around Auckland to "show that you can have a freaking awesome time without alcohol".

Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, (Hachette NZ, $30).