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Stress Drinking: Alcohol Consumption Increases During COVID-19

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Stress Drinking: Alcohol Consumption Increases During COVID-19

Apr 23, 2020

Sales of alcoholic beverages in the United States have increased 55% compared to this time last year. Our lives are stressful and alcohol consumption can be a common way to self-medicate those stresses. Women, especially, are more likely to use alcohol to cope with depression and anxiety. Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones talks about the effects of stress drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Episode Transcript

Coronavirus pandemic, social isolation, not enough social isolation, economic uncertainty. That's enough to make you want to drink. But let's not.

It's after 5:00 p.m. somewhere in the world, and it's been a long day of being cooped up with kids in the house or nobody in the house. Maybe it's the time for a glass of wine. Alcohol distributors reported a 50% increase in the sales of alcohol from one week in March of the coronavirus compared to a week the same year ago. Home delivery of alcohol has increased dramatically, and one report notes a 300% increase in alcohol sales in March compared to January. Well, maybe, in January, people were practicing Dry January, a common New Year's resolution to avoid alcohol for the month of January. And the rebound sales and corona alcohol hoarding made that bump. Of course, it could have been just sales of high proof alcohol to clean the kitchen counters. Maybe people were stocking up for social distancing.

There's some evidence that, after the big surge in alcohol sales in March, there's been a return to normal in April. But probably, that doesn't explain it all. Our lives are stressful, and we may self-medicate with alcohol to deal with the stresses of our lives. Also, women may use alcohol to self-medicate our depression and anxiety, both of which are more common in women than men and more prevalent in times of social and economic distress. The stresses of too many people stuck together in the house or apartment, the stress of trying to get the kids to do just a little schoolwork, the stress of being alone, the worries about job layoffs and cutbacks that affect men and women.

It's true that some women use alcohol to relieve stress. It's pretty effective actually. Alcohol is a downer, so alcohol is a sedative. If you are all wound up and your heart's beating and you're stressed out, alcohol can definitely make those symptoms of stress go down. The problem is alcohol interferes with your ability to make good decisions, and that's a problem, particularly if you're stressed. Alcohol increases the risk of conflict and domestic violence. And after all that, alcohol interferes with your sleep. It may make you sleepy originally, but it inhibits REM sleep. So often, people wake up at 3:00 or 2:00 at night, and they can't get back to sleep. or they stay awake with their heart beating.

Whether or not to drink is a personal choice. How much to drink and when to drink is a personal responsibility. Adolescents under 21 should never drink. You should never drink if you're driving. You should never drink if you're taking prescription drugs that interact with alcohol, particularly antidepressants, anxiety medications, or narcotics. You should never drink if you're pregnant. And you should never drink if you're not in a safe place socially. Home should be a safe place socially. However, in these days of everyone at home, out of school, maybe out of work, interactions can rise and tensions can rise. This makes home not a safe place to drink alcohol.

Now, I'm a fan of numbers, so let's do the numbers. Heavy drinking is more than seven servings of alcohol a week. A serving is the 12-ounce bottle of beer or a one 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of spirits. Alcohol abuse is a pattern that's harmful to the drinker or others. Alcoholism is a disease marked by a compulsion to drink, inability to stop drinking once it started, and the need to consume more alcohol to get the same effect, to get high or to get relaxed, and this is called tolerance. Alcoholics may also suffer alcohol withdrawal symptoms, like nausea or shaking or anxiety.

So what do you do? Honestly, look at your alcohol consumption count. Count them up. Is it more than five a week? Is it more than seven a week? How big is your glass of wine? Wine is often women's drink of choice, and a very large glass of red wine is often found in the hands of our favorite TV heroines. Ask yourself why you're drinking. Are you drinking to treat your stress, your depression, your boredom, your anxiety? Are you being encouraged to drink by a manipulative partner? If yes to those questions above, dial it down or get help to deal with why you're drinking. And you probably don't need those calories. Those TV ladies are never seen eating food anyway, so I guess they can get away with the calories.

Is it okay to drink to relieve stress? Probably not on a regular basis. In fact, in times of social and economic stress, we need to be on the top of our games to handle what is happening at home.

Also, the World Health Organization has specifically warned about alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic. The WHO's regional office for Europe recommended governments restrict access to alcohol and "any relaxation of regulations or their enforcement should be avoided." More than three million people die every year from alcohol, the WHO said. Adding that alcohol consumption during an emergency, and that's right now, can exacerbate health vulnerabilities, risk-taking behavior, mental health issues, and violence.

Now, social distancing can be particularly stressful for men and women who are in recovery from alcohol abuse. The social systems, including Alcoholics Anonymous, that help people do the very hard work day to day to stay sober, are difficult to find in these corona days. Having meetings with your therapist or your AA group on Zoom can be helpful, but the physical presence of another calm, caring human and human touch are missing. Virtual support and meetings can be helpful, but some people are not tech-savvy, and some people don't have internet. Some people will not be able to pay for their very expensive internet connection. And libraries, which have been a haven for some, are closed. It can be really hard for people who are struggling economically and struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction. For many, their work was a source of meaning and financial security and social support to get through the days. And not having work or being furloughed or being told to stay home and being socially isolated is hard.

If you're struggling with alcohol abuse in these times, try to reach out virtually, a telephone call, a tweet, a something to people who can help. If you're not struggling with alcohol abuse, try to reach out. There are people who need that call. So all of you out there, stay safe, stay calm, stay sober. And thanks for joining us on The Scope.

This information was accurate at the time of publication. Due to the changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, some information may have changed since the original publication date.