There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increased level of stress and anxiety in our lives. The disruption to everything from work to social activities will leave long lasting scars emotionally, spiritually and physically. Our regular coping skills have been stretched and exhausted, leading many to find alternative ways to handle the increased worries faced every day.
One development, often unnoticed, has been an increase in alcohol consumption among the U.S. population. A report in JAMA Network Open found that adults in the U.S. were consuming alcoholic beverages 14% more often than in the year prior to the pandemic. This is a serious issue, as it is estimated that this increase in drinking will cause 8,000 additional deaths from alcohol-related liver disease, 18,700 new cases of liver failure, and an extra 1,000 cases of liver cancer by 2040.
It may be easy to dismiss some escalation in drinking as a temporary change in one’s lifestyle due to the extraordinary present-day circumstances. The subtle addition of an extra drink at mealtime or before bed may not seem like it’s leading to overuse. This “gray area” drinking is often in response to high stress or emotionally charged situations, but it doesn’t necessarily look like alcohol abuse.
If you find yourself drinking more than you had prior to the pandemic, or if for any reason you are concerned about your levels of drinking, it is imperative that you consult your physician or a therapist. This is definitely not an issue to ignore or put on the back burner to deal with later.
There are things you can do to decrease or limit your drinking, even during these uncertain times. Here are some suggestions:
- First, be aware of how much you are, in fact, drinking. For instance, if you are using a large wine glass and filling it to the top, you are probably having nearly two drinks even though you may think you are only having one.
- Add non-alcoholic drinks into the rotation. After a glass of wine or a cocktail, try having a soda water with lime, or just a glass of water. This will allow you to rehydrate, as well as cutting down the total volume of alcohol you are consuming.
- Avoid activities that involve drinking, like going out to bars or clubs. Instead, focus your time and energy on a hobby, or start a self-care routine such as meditation or exercise.
- Set rules, and stick to them. It is easy to slide down that slippery slope of excessive drinking. If you have set a limit of one drink per day, make sure you stick to it. Likewise, if you would not usually have a drink before 5:00pm, and you find yourself now drinking earlier than that, be aware of this change and make sure you avoid having a drink before 5:00.
- Reach out for help. Aside from your doctor or therapist, there are countless support and recovery groups you can go to if you feel your drinking is out of control. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a helpline that includes free, confidential referral and information services. This is available 24 hours a day, in both English and Spanish (1.800.662.HELP).
What are some signs that you might be drinking too much? If you notice any of the following, then it might be time to reconsider your drinking habits and/or seek professional help:
- You are drinking every day.
- You cannot stop at just one or two drinks.
- You are always hungover or sluggish the next day.
- You are often sick after drinking.
- You experience symptoms of withdrawal when you stop drinking, such as shakiness, mood changes, and irritability. In extreme cases, withdrawal symptoms can include delirium tremens, which is characterized by severe shaking, shivering, sweating, and irregular heartbeat. This can be life-threatening, so it is critical that you seek medical attention immediately should you experience this.
- You have ever experienced auditory hallucinations. While rare, this side effect, known as alcoholic hallucinosis, is a serious symptom of chronic alcohol abuse.
- You have trouble remembering what happened during a night of drinking. Often referred to as a “blackout,” this is due to the effects of alcohol on short-term memory.
- You are hiding alcohol at home, work, the car, or even in a backpack or purse. This is often done when someone is concerned that they will suddenly feel the need to drink and they want to make sure they have alcohol available should that feeling arise.
- You drink until you are unconscious (also known as “passing out”).
- You drink alone. This has always been considered a sign of a drinking problem, but in these days of quarantines it can be more difficult to recognize this pattern, as many of us have been forced into isolation due to the pandemic. However, if you find yourself drinking alone, especially on a regular basis, then your drinking may very well be problematic.
- Someone has tried to talk to you about your drinking and made comments that they think it is a problem.
As the pandemic continues, it is vitally important that you take care of yourself. Be aware of the habits you are forming during this time. Being mindful of any negative patterns is the first step in resolving them, and it may well end up saving your life.