HLN Meets…Annie Grace
We catch up with the author of This Naked Mind and luminary of the ‘sober curious’ movement
By Jo Chipchase
A name constantly dropped in ‘sober curious’ circles is that of Annie Grace. Author of This Naked Mind – a self-help book about controlling our relationships with alcohol – Annie’s work has become the go-to destination for those who want to moderate their drinking, find inspiration and advice, or try her famous (and free) ‘30-day Alcohol Experiment’.
Grace, who hails from Colorado in the US, decided to change her relationship with alcohol when she no longer wanted her life to be controlled by it. At the tender age of 26, she was vice president of a multinational company and, by 35, was responsible for marketing to 28 countries. She was also drinking two bottles of wine a night.
‘I found myself constantly trying to establish and then obey rules around my drinking,’ says Annie. ‘I would break the rules and make new ones. And then I would break those. I was waking up around 3am every morning and trying to replay the night before, feeling anxious and shameful, sometimes sneaking to the kitchen to drink a bit more to delay the inevitable hangover. My child was telling me he didn’t want to snuggle up with me because my lips were purple and my breath smelled.’
Annie decided to ‘stop trying to use alcohol like duct tape to hold everything together.’ She now focuses on helping other people towards mindful drinking – i.e., not hoofing down all the wine without pausing for thought – taking a break from alcohol, or becoming sober.
Launched in 2015, This Naked Mind has reached nearly 10 million people worldwide through its podcast, books, online communities and newsletter, and more than 200,000 people have signed up for the ‘The Alcohol Experiment’ to date.
Taking a fresh approach, Grace focuses on the neuroscience behind drinking and what makes us crave alcohol, even if it’s doing us harm. She encourages people to consider their role alongside alcohol – why we want to drink, rather than ‘what’s wrong with me’. The Alcohol Experiment sends subscribers a daily video exploring how alcohol rewires our thinking and how to reboot our approach towards it.
‘For those who have been drinking since their teens or early adulthood, it’s hard to remember life before alcohol,’ explains Annie. ‘There’s the assumption that removing it will strip the fun from the good times and add stress and anxiety to challenging situations. Instead of focusing on how bad life might be without alcohol, think what alcohol adds to situations when you drink?
‘After considering the role of alcohol in my life, I interrupted my old patterns and habits without feeling deprived or angry that I wasn’t drinking. I knew if it had worked for me, it might work for other people.’
So Grace did her own research. ‘I started by making a list of every reason I drank,’ she says. ‘Then, I asked my friends and family for all the reasons they drank. I ended up with a long list. I used Google Scholar to find out why we think alcohol relaxes us, and what it really does.
‘Yes, alcohol will numb you – it was used as an anaesthetic in surgeries. However, in reaction to drinking our bodies release stimulants, specifically adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol is sometimes known as the stress hormone. What feels better for a short time ultimately makes you cumulatively more stressed. When I found that out, I no longer looked at a glass of wine to “relax” in the same way. It was liberating.’
Grace points out that alcohol, as an addictive substance in our society, is elevated to a different status than nicotine or eating disorders, for example. After all, we wouldn’t suggest to someone who has stopped smoking: ‘oh, go on – just have one cigarette’; just like we wouldn’t say to someone on a diet: ‘half a slice of chocolate cake won’t do you any harm.’
Grace explains: ‘Alcohol is the only drug we have to justify not taking. In our society, alcohol is pitched as self-care and necessary for women who are trying to do it all. Those messages have increased with the advent of social media and are supported by media personalities and celebrities. Drinking has been normalised – if you don’t drink, people wonder why. And, since COVID, life has become more stressful, especially for moms.
‘When someone decides to stop drinking, people assume they have a problem with alcohol and find it hard to accept that the person might just want a healthier life. Society blames the drinker for becoming addicted and says they’re weak and flawed. The reality is that alcohol is designed to keep us coming back for more. In comparison, if people say they are quitting smoking, no one questions this is a healthy choice or blames them for getting addicted to nicotine.’
With the This Naked Mind platform, there’s no castigation for not ‘behaving’ – i.e., continuing to drink or falling off the waggon. ‘The sobriety movement long ago adopted the thinking that success is defined by 100% abstinence and anything less is a complete failure,’ says Annie. ‘This led to the notion that if someone lapsed, they had to “start over” from ground zero. I don’t see it that way at all.
‘The idea that one drink, on my path to healing, made me a failure and was considered a “relapse” triggered me to drink more. It’s frequently referred to as the “What the Hell Effect” – when we mess up, so start to then feel like: “oh well, I screwed up already so I might as well really mess up”. That behaviour is rooted in the shame and guilt we carry around. At This Naked Mind, we use the term “data point”, which implies that it’s just another point on our journey – whether one drink or a few drinks, rather than a multi-day bender. It doesn’t define you and you don’t need to be punished for it. But you can learn from it.’
Last year, Grace launched The PATH (Pause, Act, Transform, Hone) – a counselling course that includes coaching sessions, Zoom calls and video content, and is aimed at those who are ambivalent about drinking or want to stop. The idea is to change their overall mindset so that alcohol becomes much smaller and less relevant to them. Grace describes it as ‘a grace-based, compassion-led journey designed for people who can imagine a life where alcohol is no longer an issue.’ The programme costs around £71.50 a month.
As Grace points out, the sober curious movement is growing every day. ‘More and more people are opting not to drink alcohol,’ she says. ‘And they’re not hiding it.’
Interested in learning more? Get your copy of This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life here