With the COVID-19 pandemic comes constant stress for many people. It’s no surprise that many in the US and worldwide are feeling the strain on their mental health. Concurrently, alcohol consumption has increased as a widespread coping mechanism during this time. Although it has very serious health implications, it’s also generally accepted as a social norm. Light-hearted alcoholic drink names like the “pandemic punch” or “quarantini” or amusing drinking games have become a regular part of our current lifestyle. Unfortunately, for many this simple coping mechanism can turn into a routine habit. And as we know, drinking alcohol on a regular basis can take a serious toll on your physical and mental health. It can also lead to more serious substance use and addiction issues.
Alcohol consumption during the pandemic.
Studies have shown that alcohol consumption has increased notably since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the number of days that people are drinking alcohol, as well as the overall number of drinks consumed. The direct correlation between pandemic stress and increased alcohol consumption has shown what a recognized coping mechanism it has become.
How does alcohol work?
Drinking alcohol slows down your central nervous system, which for many people is accompanied by feelings of relaxation. Most often, drinking alcohol affects your memory and influences your judgement. In the short term, it can quell your stress and anxiety.
Alcohol as a coping mechanism.
It’s easy to see why so many people turn to alcohol to cope with difficulties in their lives. It’s widely available, not too expensive, and it’s a regular part of our society and culture. Many people make it a regular habit to consume alcohol to wind down after work. Alcohol is often consumed in social situations. Another generally accepted use for alcohol is to soothe heartbreak, such as when going through a breakup or loss. More recently during the pandemic, people have been spending extended periods of time in lockdown or isolating at home. Because of this, there has emerged another widely-known and socially acceptable use for alcohol as a coping mechanism. Many who are bored with the monotony (and stress) of the pandemic have turned to drinking more often. Unfortunately, a coping mechanism can easily turn into a habit, and if not taken seriously it can have serious consequences.
Alcoholism is tied to many mental health issues.
Because alcohol is often used as a coping mechanism for mental health issues, alcoholism is often a “co-occuring disorder.” This means that both a substance use issue and a mental health issue are happening at the same time. Some of the most commonly occurring mental-health issues that accompany alcohol abuse are:
PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
Major depressive disorder
ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder)
Generalized anxiety disorder
It’s easy to see why a combination of pandemic stress and frequent alcohol intake can lead to co-occuring disorders. These disorders can unfortunately be tricky to recognize and diagnose. This is because it’s sometimes unclear exactly what is causing symptoms. If you do have a co-occuring disorder, it’s important to first get a clear diagnosis before you start receiving treatment. Rather than treating each facet separately, most health professionals will offer you an integrated treatment. Addressing both a substance use issue and an underlying mental health issue is an important step in reducing harm caused by both.
What are some other ways to manage stress and anxiety?
One of the key points to remember is that turning to alcohol for anxiety and stress relief is a coping mechanism. Because of this, you can learn other coping mechanisms that don’t affect your long term health (or do, in a positive way!) If you feel your alcohol use is out of control or you need professional help, please see the resources linked at the end of this post. If you are seeking alternative and healthier coping mechanisms, read on for some alternative ideas for managing anxiety and stress.
Breathing, mindfulness, meditation, or yoga.
Studies have shown that these activities have a measurable effect on your physical well-being. When you practice breathing exercises, mindfulness, or engage in meditation or yoga, your brain will start to function differently. Relieved of stress, it can create different and more positive patterns related to your attention and emotions.
Staying in touch with your support system.
It’s very important for your mental well-being to maintain social connections and relationships. Your close, trusted relationships can offer a major boost to your mental health. One surprising benefit of switching social interactions to an online format means that you can refocus your energy towards people who provide you with positive, uplifting, and supportive communications. With less in-person meetups, you’re under less obligation to keep in contact with those who drain your mental energy or cause you stress.
Engaging in physical activity.
Staying active is important for your physical health, but it can have a positive impact on your mental health. Exercise is specifically good for lowering stress because it can help with sleep cycles, one key aspect for your overall mental health. It can also provide your brain a boost of serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical that improves your mood and gives you an overall sense of wellbeing.
For additional tips about how to support your mental health during self-isolation and lockdown, read more here.
When does regular drinking turn into a substance use issue?
There is not an exact science when it comes to diagnosing a substance use issue, such as alcoholism. Many factors come into play when a health professional is investigating your situation. One of these factors include whether your alcohol consumption is aggravating any existing health issues. If you’re unable to curb or stop your consumption and it’s directly affecting your health in a negative way, that’s a major red flag. Other factors that are often considered include how alcohol consumption affects your day-to-day life. Is alcohol getting in the way or your work, your relationships, school work, or other regular activities? If the answer is yes to any of these, that is usually a good indication that your alcohol consumption could be considered a use issue.
Help is always available.
If you need alcohol treatment during a time when social distancing is required, help is still available to you. There are many professionally led treatment options available online. This includes therapists and doctors who specialize in addiction, treatment programs, and mutual support groups. You can find an extensive list of resources published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism here.