For many Americans, the days of the coronavirus quarantine have been bracketed by coffee at one end and happy hour at the other. Drinking memes and “quarantini” recipes are everywhere, and off-premises booze sales surged by 55 percent in mid-March as people started turning to alcohol to deal with the stress, anxiety and grief brought on by isolation.
But weeks or even months of using alcohol to escape difficult emotions could leave those who indulge with a problem that’s hard to shake once the lockdown is over.
“Many people will, for the first time, develop an alcohol use disorder,” said Julia Chester, associate professor of psychological sciences in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Purdue University, who studies the factors influencing alcohol and substance abuse disorders.
Traumatic events such as the coronavirus pandemic have historically led to a spike in alcohol abuse and dependence, Chester said, along with increased calls to mental health crisis centers and domestic abuse hotlines, and an uptick in DUIs. That was the case, she said, after 9/11 and natural disasters such as Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. Some recovery-support nonprofits are already seeing an increase in reported alcohol abuse.
“Among those who have been struggling with alcohol, we are seeing quite a wide return to relapsing,” said Dawn Nickel, founder of the nonprofit sober-support network SheRecovers.
How quarantine drinking can lead to problems
Tipping back a drink now and then can be an appropriate social behavior — Zoom happy hours with friends or learning to mix cocktails with your spouse can be a fun way to connect. But for vulnerable individuals or those already struggling with addiction, using alcohol to cope with fear or grief can quickly escalate into a serious problem, particularly without much structure or social pressure to rein it in.
Lockdown drinking is a slippery slope because heavier drinking causes adaptations in the brain that create greater deficits in emotional regulation, Chester said. “Every time you’re sober you have less of an ability to manage your anxiety and are less resilient in your ability to handle stress,” she said, which leads people to drink even more.
The World Health Organization recently encouraged governments to enforce measures that limit alcohol consumption during the pandemic, not only because heavy drinking undermines immunity, but because of its contribution to mental health problems, violence and impulsive risk-taking behavior.
While it’s difficult to determine how many more drinks people in the United States are consuming on average each day, sales are still up; online alcohol sales increased 26.2 percent in the week ending April 11 from the same period in 2019, according to Nielsen.
Do you have an issue with alcohol?
In addition to people who have relapsed, SheRecovers is seeing more people without a diagnosis reaching out to discuss whether they might have a problem.
U.S. dietary guidelines define moderate drinking as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, although no amount is considered healthy. Heavy alcohol use is defined as more than four drinks on any day for men or more than three drinks for women, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
But numbers alone don’t indicate when you should be concerned. If you find yourself becoming more preoccupied with drinking — such as thinking ahead to what you’re going to drink and when you can start imbibing, Chester said, you might be developing a problem.
Watch for signs that drinking is interfering with your emotional stability, including spikes in irritability, anxiety and depression.
Of course, gauging normal in a crisis isn’t easy, said Ruby Warrington, author of “Sober Curious” and the forthcoming “Sober Curious Reset.” Many people are coping with far more than they normally would, from the stress of juggling remote work and home schooling their kids, to the loss of a job or fear about a loved one working in an essential business.
“But I think you could ask the question, ‘If I can’t imagine my day without a drink why is that?’” Warrington said. If you’re concerned, she and other sober influencers suggest trying a day without alcohol to see how difficult it is and note any differences you experience in your energy, emotions and sleep.
If you decide you might have an unhealthy relationship with booze, you can find support to quit from 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which has taken its meetings online during the pandemic, or in recovery communities such as In the Rooms. In addition, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids has launched a new text-messaging support service to help the increasing numbers struggling with alcohol consumption during isolation.
For those who are more sober curious, coaches recommend spending this time in quarantine cultivating positive booze-free influences on social media by searching for hashtags such as #SoberCurious or #SoberLife, listening to podcasts such as “The Bubble Hour” or “Sober Curious,” or reading online publications such as the Temper.
A sober silver lining
One huge positive to emerge from the pandemic, Chester said, is that more free online support has opened up, making sober support more accessible to those who might otherwise not be able to afford it, have time for it or be able to attend without child care.
Moreover, virtual support sessions have made it less intimidating for people who think they might have a problem to talk through their concerns; often anonymously with video off.
In addition to supporting people through its Facebook group, SheRecovers has moved all of its in-person coaching sessions online, Nickel said.
“We now have women who are brand new to the idea of stopping drinking come on twice a day just to disclose how they’re doing.”
New coping strategies
Because drinking is a way that people are using now more than ever to define their days, finding other activities to mark the transition to personal downtime can help.
Warrington recommends strategies such as calling a friend at the beginning of the evening to check in, going out for a 20-minute walk, or doing an online yoga session to defuse the stress and anxiety that has built up over the day.
“You want to consciously tell yourself this is what I’m using to make the switch” to your own personal time, she said.
Personal time could include more self-care such as hot showers, meditation and living room dance parties, and a greater emphasis on good nutrition. A new wave of nonalcoholic spirits, beer and mocktails can also provide the taste of booze without the hangover.
To be sure, the lockdown hasn’t negatively affected everyone’s alcohol consumption, and recovery organizations say that at least some who thought they might have a problem before the pandemic are giving sobriety a try because they no longer have the outside social pressure to drink.
Really, Warrington said, what the isolation has done is make us confront all of the escapes we use to distract ourselves from our feelings and our reality.
“This is an opportunity to uncover any unconscious habits, like that glass of wine that turns into a half bottle every night.”
Melinda Fulmer is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter or Instagram @melindafulmer.
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