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  • Writer's pictureMeredith Waller

Alcohol use during a pandemic

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

Living through 2020 undeniably required some creativity in how we cope and navigate each day. One thing I have heard from people in both my personal and professional life is, “I have been drinking more than usual”. Is this true for you? Alcohol sales acknowledge this is true for many people, with a 54% increase in alcohol sales when the pandemic began in March, and a 234% growth for online alcohol sales (read more here). While I haven’t heard anyone arguing that this is their healthiest coping skill, it is true that it can sometimes feel like a quick way to de-stress, relax and escape stressful thinking. But, why?

Alcohol directly impacts our nervous system, acting as both a sedative and depressant. In the same way, alcohol decreases our stress-response (fight/ flight/ freeze) which tells us when we should be “on alert” and can be overactive when we are in ongoing stressful environments or situations (pandemics and elections qualify). Quieting this part of our brain and nervous system can make people feel less anxious or stressed, and more able to relax or even sleep. But there are a few caveats:

Alcohol is not really helping you sleep

Alcohol limits our ability to get into REM sleep, decreasing our overall sleep quality and increasing sleep disruptions (more here). While it may help you feel like you’re falling asleep faster, the type of sleep achieved is much less restorative, leading to increased daytime sleepiness. It can become a vicious cycle, where we are relying on alcohol to help us get to sleep because we didn’t sleep well the night before, and on and on. Mayo Clinic recommends that adults stop consuming alcohol 3 hours before trying to go to sleep, and limit to 2 alcoholic beverages a night for adults less than 65 years old or 1 alcohol beverage for adults 65+.

Alcohol is a depressant

In addition to the depressive impact on our nervous system, it is important to remember that the depressant nature of alcohol can also impact our mood. If you’re already navigating depression symptoms, alcohol can increase difficulty with energy, motivation, and low mood. While it can be seen as an “escape” from the persistent sadness or hopelessness, excessive substance use can lead to additional stress in other areas, such as interpersonal relationships or career. Speaking with your doctor about appropriate treatments for depression, or reaching out to a therapist to have support in breaking the cycle of depression, can help address your symptoms instead of numbing them.

Alcohol can increase anxiety

During this stressful time, many have turned to alcohol to reduce symptoms of anxiety, or as an outlet for stress. However, long-term alcohol abuse has been shown to increase anxiety symptoms, decrease the brain’s ability to recover from traumatic events, and lead to health concerns that can cause additional stress. Some of the most effective treatments for anxiety involve increasing our awareness and control over our nervous system, not tuning it out. Cognitive Behavioral, Somatic and Mindfulness therapies can help you regain control of your worries or concerns, and rebuild a healthy mind/body connection. Does your anxiety feel unbearable without alcohol? You can always speak with your doctor about medication options for anxiety or ask for a referral for a psychiatrist.

Alcohol is something we build up a tolerance to

Another downside to using alcohol in excess is that we build up a tolerance to it relatively quickly. It is not uncommon for people to report that the amount of drinks it takes them to feel relaxed continues to increase, and it is not always safe for people to stop drinking abruptly. Speak to your doctor about your current use and options so that you do not withdraw or detox unsafely. You can also reach out to the confidential, 24/7 Alcohol Hotline with any questions or concerns: 844-289-0879

Unsure what constitutes low-risk alcohol use?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, low-risk alcohol use is 1 drink a day or less than 7 a week for women, and 2 drinks a day or less than 14 a week for men. A drink is considered: 12oz beer (5% abv), 8oz malt liquor, 5oz wine (12% abv), or 1.5oz 80-proof distilled liquor/spirits.

I think it is important to acknowledge that supports which are usually available- in-person groups, sponsor meetings, sober activities- have drastically decreased since the pandemic began. If it feels harder to access substance-use specific support, that is also 100% valid. While virtual groups or programs are not the same, they can offer support during this time and are accessible to all. Individual support is also an option right now. You do not have to meet criteria for a Substance Use Disorder to decide you want support in making incremental changes and you also don’t have to wait until things are “bad”. If you are ready for a change, that is all that matters!


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