COVID Lockdowns Have Side Effect of Increased Binge Drinking, Study Shows

Two glasses of dark liquor side by side on wood table

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Key Takeaways

  • Binge drinking has been shown to increase as lockdown times increase.
  • Those with and without a previous depression diagnosis are affected.
  • Support systems and alternative coping mechanisms during this time are vital.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is a medical crisis unprecedented in recent history, the stress, anxiety, and overall strain on our collective mental health is a pandemic unto itself. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs or are living in fear of losing their income.

Even for those who have not contracted the coronavirus, the stress of isolation and broader health threats has had a major impact. When the weight of so many concerns becomes too much to bear, many people reach for the bottle as a way to cope. But alcohol consumption is no treatment for mental health problems.

Overall, alcohol consumption has increased 14% in adults during the pandemic. A recent study in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse showed that binge drinking has been an ongoing issue, with 34% of the sample reporting binge drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic, including weekly increases as lockdown protocols persist.

What Did the Study Show?

The study surveyed 2,441 U.S. adults. For the purposes of this study, binge drinking was defined as having at least five alcoholic drinks for a male and four alcoholic drinks for a female during one occasion. Participants were asked how their consumption of alcohol has changed compared to life before the coronavirus outbreak.

Independent variables that were considered included household composition, job status, essential worker status, and shelter-in-place duration. Household income was a factor in this study, as 70% of participants reported an income of over $80,000 annually. This is in alignment with studies showing that higher incomes may be connected with dangerous levels of binge drinking.

Nate Favini, MD

Many people are likely turning to alcohol as an escape to help them get through this really difficult time.

— Nate Favini, MD

The researchers found that the one of the biggest factors for binge drinking during this time was length of time sheltering in place. Virtual intervention has been shown to be helpful at mitigating this coping mechanism, and should be made widely available.

The other major factor in increased binge drinking during the pandemic is depression prior to the pandemic, or current symptoms of depression. The latter is especially troubling given the decline in the mental health of Americans during the pandemic.

This data shows that support is vital during this time. “Many people are likely turning to alcohol as an escape to help them get through this really difficult time.” says Nate Favini, MD, medical lead of Forward.

Because fewer restrictions around COVID safety protocols put individuals and communities at a great risk for physical illness, however, loosening lockdowns is not the optimal solution to this coping mechanism. Instead, wider accessibility to mental health services would be widely beneficial.

Researchers have concerns that these trends will affect our overall societal health long term. Heavy drinking is associated with conditions such as liver and cardiovascular disease, as well as cancer.

Binge Drinking vs. Alcoholism

"Binge drinking is a pattern of heavy alcohol use over a short period of time," says Favini. "Binge drinking can occur without the chronic daily alcohol use that is typically seen in other drinking problems such as alcoholism. People who binge drink usually do not have alcohol withdrawal. Binge drinkers usually feel fine between discrete episodes of alcohol overuse.

“Binge drinking is most common in people between the ages of 25 and 34, and is more common in men than women. Additionally, binge drinking is more typical in households with an income of $75K+ and higher education levels.” says Favini.

How Do I Know If This Is an Issue for Me?

Favini says, “If you notice that your alcohol consumption has increased markedly and that you are drinking more than before, this could be a sign that your drinking has become an issue." He adds that it's important to pay attention if your alcohol use is negatively impacting your personal relationships or work performance.

"If other people are irritated by your drinking, if you feel guilty about your drinking habits, if you’re experiencing symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, or if you feel the need to drink in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover," then your drinking may be a cause for concern, he says.

While it is important to be mindful of your alcohol consumption, especially during times of stress, you don't have to swear it off completely. The dangerous territory is when you opt to utilize alcohol as a coping mechanism to get through high stress situations.

Given that we've experienced several months of a persistent high-stress situation, this can result in unhealthy and potentially dangerous levels of consumption. While there is a lot to be stressed about, it's important to remember that you're not alone, and that there are other safer ways to cope. Favini recommends picking up some alternative practices such as exercise and meditation.

Board-certified addiction specialist Joseph DeSanto, MD, offers some questions you can ask yourself that may help determine if your binge drinking has progressed to an even bigger concern: 

  • Once you start, can you stop?
  • Are your friends or family, spouse or children mentioning you may have a problem?
  • Do you hide your drinking or feel guilty about it?
  • Do you drink first thing upon awakening?

What This Means For You

This past year has been extremely stressful for many people, and there has been a significant collective rise in alcohol consumption. Falling into this method of coping is not abnormal, but if not contained, it can result in harmful effects on your overall long-term health.

If you find that you have increased your general alcohol consumption during this time, or that you find yourself turning to alcohol for comfort, then alternative interventions may be necessary.

There are a myriad of virtual sessions that you can attend from the comfort of your own home. You are not alone in this, and it is important that you surround yourself with a support system, especially if you are someone who has previously navigated depression or substance use disorders.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Weerakoon SM, Jetelina KK, Knell G. Longer time spent at home during COVID-19 pandemic is associated with binge drinking among US adults. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2021;47(1):98-106. doi:10.1080/00952990.2020.1832508

  3. Keyes KM, Hasin DS. Socio-economic status and problem alcohol use: the positive relationship between income and the DSM-IV alcohol abuse diagnosis. Addiction. 2008;103:1120–30. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2008.02218.x

  4. Panchal N, Kamal R, Orgera K, et al. The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use. Kaiser Family Foundation.

  5. Carrà G, Crocamo C, Bartoli F, et al. Impact of a mobile e-health intervention on binge drinking in young people: The Digital–Alcohol Risk Alertness Notifying Network for Adolescents and Young Adults Project. J Adolesc Health. 2016;58:520–26. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2016.01.008