To say the past seven months have been stressful is an understatement. What’s more, the upcoming presidential election has likely piled more angst onto your plate.
In order to deal with stress and anxiety, many people have started drinking more alcohol. For adults over age 30, overall frequency of alcohol consumption rose by 14 percent from one week in late March 2019 to the same week in March 2020, when coronavirus cases began increasing in the United States, according to a research letter published in JAMA Network Open in September 2020.
The effects may be more heavily falling on women, as episodes where women binge-drink (four or more drinks in a couple of hours) jumped 41 percent, the research found.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises men and women to drink moderately (limiting to one drink per day for women and two for men), some groups say that no amount of alcohol is safe. For instance, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) says that for cancer prevention, avoiding alcohol completely is best. Plus, drinking increases your risk for injuries, car accidents, and chronic health issues like high blood pressure, the CDC points out.
That’s why the uptick in alcohol consumption is so concerning for healthcare professionals — and why it’s worth taking a moment to step back and reexamine your relationship with booze. “The drinking environment is complex right now. There’s much more home consumption but less consumption at bars and restaurants,” says Keith Humphreys, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “Heavy drinking at home will outlast the lockdown because many people have lost jobs and the structure, purpose, and esteem that comes with it. The fear and anxiety people feel about COVID, the economy, and the political environment can also lead to heavier drinking,” he says.
So is your drinking an issue? A sign that your level of imbibing may be problematic is when drinking begins to interfere with other important activities (like work or parenting responsibilities) or is harming your physical or mental health, says Humphreys.
For a formal assessment, you can self-assess through the Michigan Alcohol Screening Test (MAST), suggests Barbara Wood, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of alcoholism. (You can find one version of the MAST questionnaire here.) It’s also about the amount you drink. If you find that you drink three to four drinks or more in one day or five or more drinks on one occasion monthly or weekly, those are signs you’re drinking too much, says the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It also calls out the following red flags:
- You drink more or longer than you plan.
- You haven’t been able to cut down or stop on your own.
- Drinking is making you anxious, but you don’t stop.
- You continue to drink even though drinking is causing problems in your life.
That last one — continuing to drink despite negative effects — is a big one, says Wood. “Someone who does not have a drinking problem will run into trouble and say, ‘I can’t do that anymore,’ and they’ll stop and alter their pattern. And they will sustain this change,” she says.
Also, it’s important to mindfully assess your drinking — even if you don’t think there are issues. There is a strong link between alcohol disorders and anxiety. If you notice that you drink to soothe anxiety or sadness, you’re more at risk for developing a drinking problem in the future, notes a review in Alcohol Research: Current Reviews in December 2019. What’s more, the authors point out, having an alcohol disorder increases the risk of developing anxiety and vice versa. If you have anxiety, reconsider your relationship to alcohol, as it will likely only worsen symptoms in the long run.
It’s brave and admirable to get help when you need it, and one-third of people who seek treatment have no further symptoms of alcohol use disorders one year later, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Options for treatment include behavioral counseling programs from health professionals, medication to help stop drinking, and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). But talking to your primary care provider should be your first step.
If, on the other hand, drinking is not a problem for you but you would like to cut back on your consumption during the pandemic, here’s how to drink responsibly:
1. Be Honest With Yourself
It’s easy to think that you’re simply a habitual drinker, but drinking is far more than a habit, says Wood. In fact, drinking floods the brain with the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which enhances your enjoyment of whatever activity you’re doing. But that, in turn, affects the part of your brain that controls executive functions — or the area that assesses consequences, inhibits impulses, and manages emotions. That can affect your ability to readily assess if your drinking is worrisome. Try to plan a break. Sober-challenge months, like Sober October and Dry January, are a way you can challenge yourself to reset your drinking patterns and learn to build dopamine with other enjoyable activities. While drinking less may feel uncomfortable at first, having a healthy relationship with alcohol means you’ll be able to take a break when you need one.
2. Check Your Meds
As the U.S. National Library of Medicine points out, alcohol can interact with a variety of prescription and over-the-counter medication. Make sure that yours is not on the list and you know how combining the two may affect you. This includes common medication that treats allergies and cold/flu, anxiety and depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, and more, says the NIAAA.
3. Never Drink During These Two Situations
Don’t drink if you’re going to drive or care for a child solo, says Wood. That’s tough to swallow, but just because you’re below the legal limit for driving (0.08 blood alcohol concentration, or BAC) does not mean you can safely operate a vehicle. “Even at 0.02 BAC, which is the limit for drivers in Sweden, there is some loss of judgment and difficulty multitasking,” she explains. What’s more, if you’ve had a drink and are waiting to “sober up” before starting your car, know that when you feel like you’re sobering up or are okay to drive, your BAC is likely peaking, she adds.
The zero-alcohol rule also applies for times when you’re caring for kids. If you are the only adult present, Wood advises that you skip drinking entirely, as you need to be on your game to respond to an emergency.
4. Eat if You’re Going to Drink
Part of drinking responsibly is always pairing alcohol with food. “Alcohol will impair you less if you consume it with food rather than on an empty stomach,” says Humphreys.
5. Downsize Your Glass
When you pour wine into a glass, how do you know when to stop? You’d be surprised at how small a standard 5-ounce (oz) pour of wine looks in a typical, large wineglass. “Big glasses often lead people to pour themselves bigger drinks and to consume more of them,” says Humphreys. You can measure out how much this is in your favorite glass, but it still may look unsatisfyingly puny. Instead, he recommends this hack: Use smaller glasses. That goes for beer and spirits, too.
6. Find Other Means of Self-Care
“Right now people are without their usual means of mediating pain. They’re missing social connections, structures of work, they’re sitting all day, and it may be tough to exercise. What’s more, we’re all living in this condition of global catastrophe,” says Wood. That’s not meant to get you down, but it’s a call to ask: What’s your sanity plan? Wood recommends identifying four or five things that you need to support your mood. Now is the time to reassess because as colder weather and shorter days come, you may have fewer outdoor options available to you.