If you’ve been drinking to cope with the pandemic, you’re not alone — and the stress of the Omicron surge certainly isn’t helping.
Starting in March 2020, researchers noted a major increase in sales of alcoholic spirits and wine across the United States, which was partly attributed to panic buying. In Canada, between March 2020 and June 2021, monthly alcohol sales increased by 5.5%. They also noted a stockpiling trend.
Whether you’re considering a Dry January or simply want to cut back on your consumption and drink more mindfully, here’s what you need to know.
“The pandemic has exacerbated many stressors that promote drinking,” said Ken Abrams, PhD, professor and chair of psychology at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Some people use alcohol to self-medicate, as it can provide stress relief in the short term.
Stressors that have arisen or worsened throughout the pandemic include:
Some research also suggests that stress-related alcohol consumption affects women more than men.
“Women are still more likely than men to be responsible for household tasks, child-rearing, and caring for dependent parents, and have experienced relatively more stress from online work, online schooling of kids, and the closures of daycares,” Abrams said.
This increase in alcohol consumption could have extreme consequences, with pandemic-related alcohol consumption projected to cause 8,000 additional deaths from liver disease by 2040.
Many casual drinkers have fallen into a “gray area” during the pandemic, unsure or unaware whether their consumption is excessive, problematic, or of no concern at all.
Barbara Wood, PhD, psychologist and clinical trauma professional in Bethesda, Maryland, said this could happen when alcohol starts causing problems in one or more areas — such as family, home, school, or work — and persists despite harmful effects.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a mental health condition that involves:
According to Wood, “gray area drinking” is a mild or moderate form of AUD.
But even mild AUD can lead to effects like poorer judgment, diminished impulse control, and reduced psychological flexibility.
“People with AUDs have less ability to accurately assess their own well-being,” Wood said, noting that they’re also less likely to perceive the negative effects of their drinking on others.
Some individuals with severe AUDs are “high functioning,” which can make them less likely to acknowledge when there may be a problem.
“They don’t fit common, stereotypical views of problem drinkers,” Wood said. “They don’t lose their jobs, and due to the higher tolerance for alcohol they have developed over time, it isn’t always obvious they are intoxicated or impaired.”
If you’re concerned about your pandemic drinking habits, Wood suggested online surveys such as:
“Both surveys render a score that helps people determine whether their drinking places their health and well-being (and potentially the health and well-being of friends and family) at risk,” she said.
Should you cut back on drinking or abstain altogether? Taking time to think about your drinking habits instead of operating on impulses can help you decide.
Wood suggests writing a list that includes what you find attractive or compelling about drinking, then comparing it to any negative or harmful experiences related to drinking.
“Once your reasons for making a change seem clear, you can set your intention(s) for the change,” Wood said, offering the following examples:
But modifying any long-term behaviors isn’t easy, especially if it means letting go of something that helps relieve stress and anxiety.
“It’s a good idea to get critical aspects of self-care in place,” Wood said. “If you’re sleep-deprived, under- or malnourished, or overworked, you will lack energy for a significant change.”
The concept of mindful drinking, which applies mindfulness meditation strategies to drinking behaviors, has gained popularity among wellness enthusiasts in recent years. Yet clinical evidence for its efficacy is still lacking.
“The idea of mindful drinking is to be intentional, present, and aware each time you engage in your relationship with alcohol,” wrote Awstin Gregg, LCSW, CEO at Connections Wellness Group in Texas, in an email.
“It’s an encouragement to reflect on why you drink alcohol, how much alcohol you drink, and an evaluation of whether these choices support your goals,” Gregg said.
Gregg added that mindfulness can help us make smarter decisions, set healthier boundaries, and be more grounded and in control of our choices, even those involving alcohol.
“When we practice mindfulness, we have an opportunity to slow down,” Gregg said. “When we slow down to enjoy the flavors of a drink, we also become more present with those around us.”
If you’re curious about sobriety but not ready or wanting to go all in, try these mindful drinking tips to monitor your intake and cut back.
Mindful drinking is about being intentional with your relationship to alcohol and observing yourself while you’re drinking. Pausing encourages self-reflection, according to Gregg.
Try asking yourself the following questions the next time you drink:
Checking in on yourself before drinking is an invaluable exercise.
“Frequently, people engage in alcohol to escape,” Gregg said. “If you’re drinking to escape something, you may find yourself in a cycle that could lead to dependence.”
It can be easy to get carried away in social settings where others are drinking excessively, especially when it seems like everyone is having fun.
To feel a sense of belonging with your peers, mix up a mocktail or have a glass of water in between rounds to help reduce cravings and curb your intake.
Remember that you’re not the only one on the path to drinking less. Consider partnering up with a “buddy” who shares a similar goal to develop a healthier relationship with alcohol and can provide you with accountability and support.
Many people are social drinkers, while some turn to alcohol to cope with stress, anxiety, and sadness.
“It’s normal to have distressing feelings right now,” Wood said. “The goal can’t be to live without distress — it can be to regulate behavior so that you reduce self-harm by alcohol.”
The next time you feel tempted to drink to cope with your emotions, consider these strategies instead:
It’s common to feel distressed when the world feels chaotic and uncertain.
“Uncertainty is a massive stressor for human beings, as is isolation from other human beings,” Wood said. “It might feel silly or contrived, but speaking to yourself with kindness matters.”
Healthy distractions can help you cope with cravings. Try cooking a nourishing meal, watching a comedy or favorite TV show, or engaging in a creative pursuit.
Exercises such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), and meditation can change your brain and make you more self-aware, which can help you cope with emotions when a craving for alcohol strikes.
If you’re working through difficult emotions, journaling can be a valuable exercise. Wood said that journaling can also be a useful tool to keep a log of your drinking habits.
Try asking yourself the following questions:
According to Wood, human connection is a powerful antidote to alcohol misuse: “If we can reduce pain through our interactions with others, the need for solace in alcohol is greatly reduced.”
While the pandemic has undeniably made social connections trickier, there are many ways to meaningfully connect, whether virtually or in person. “Isolation is the enemy of mental health,” Wood said.
Depending on the level and frequency of your alcohol use, the above strategies may not be enough to take the edge off on their own.
These strategies and tools are shown to be clinically effective, according to Abrams:
The urge to cope or numb with alcohol is real, but help is available if you feel like it would benefit you.
If your drinking habit feels overwhelming, or you’re unable to manage your cravings, you can reach out to a healthcare professional for additional support.
“A ‘Dry January’ or a dry ‘any month’ is a great idea for anyone who is concerned about their drinking,” Wood said. “Whether you remain abstinent or not, you’ll wind up with important information about your relationship with alcohol.”
Fact checked on January 13, 2022
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