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Americans Are Using Alcohol to Cope With COVID-19 Stress

woman looking out window with glass of wine on table

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Key Takeaways

  • While restaurants and bars have been closed, direct-to-consumer alcohol sales are up significantly over last year.
  • In times of crisis, it's not unusual for people to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
  • Excessive alcohol use puts drinkers at risk of addiction and can compromise the immune system.
  • There are healthier ways to cope with the stress of COVID-19.

While many people in the United States remain stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are turning to alcohol as a means of coping with everything from stress and frustration to loneliness and grief. From Zoom happy hours to day-drinking and unwinding with a cold one, people are using alcohol not only as a source of entertainment but also as a way to get through the tough times and difficult emotions associated with a global pandemic.

In fact, off-premise alcohol sales were up 55% in the third week of March this year compared to last year, according to data reported by Nielsen, an international measurement and data analytics company. Leading the way in sales were tequila, gin, and pre-mixed cocktails with sales jumping 75% compared to last year. Meanwhile, wine sales were up 66% and beer sales increased by 42%. What’s more: Online alcohol sales jumped 243%.

And although a large portion of this initial increase may have been due to people stocking up—and the fact that bars and restaurants were closed to in-person patronage—it also could be a marker for a dangerous trend, especially since direct-to-consumer alcohol sales are continuing to trend higher than this time last year. In fact, past research has shown that alcohol abuse disorders tend to rise during times of crisis.

For instance, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, alcohol consumption rose and that hospitalizations related to alcohol use disorders increased by 35%.

Meanwhile, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were associated with more binge drinking after a year and higher odds of alcohol dependence one to two years later. So, increased drinking now could result in a spike of alcohol use disorders in the years to come.

Why Alcohol Use Has Increased

Even though most people drink within healthy limits—one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men—trends like virtual wine tastings, happy hours, and online parties with friends are driving up the need to purchase more alcohol for home consumption. To some, the stay-at-home orders have turned into what feels like one extended vacation. And, as a result, they are drinking now more than ever.

And because old schedules and norms are no longer as rigid, it’s not uncommon for people to be drinking earlier in the day and on more weekday nights. To most people, this change in drinking habits no longer feels inappropriate or strange. Instead, it has become a normal way of dealing with the pandemic.

There are even online groups popping up that complement these changes including chat rooms for local bars, Zoom meetings where drinking is acceptable, and social media pages like Quarantined Beer Chugs. 

Another reason alcohol consumption is increasing is that many people are cut off from their best coping mechanisms like going to the gym, hanging out with friends, and spending time at museums, zoos, and coffee shops. Even televised sporting events are no longer available. So, to many people, it seems like the only option for filling their time is to pour a glass of wine and kick back on the couch.

Anxiety and fear of the unknown also are contributing to the rise in drinking among Americans. Because the novel coronavirus is so new, there are a lot of unknowns about how easily it is spread and how likely you would be to recover should you get it.

And for some people, these unknowns increase anxiety and stress and may lead them to cope with their feelings in unhealthy ways. When you factor in all the additional emotional turmoil people are experiencing like losing their jobs and being cut-off from other people, it’s not surprising that drinking can feel like a welcome reprieve.

The pandemic also may cause some people who have already recovered from substance abuse to relapse during the lockdown. And some people who are in the early stages of recovery may find it more difficult to stick to their treatment programs.

Why You Should Be Concerned

While a few extra drinks here and there are not a big deal, it’s also important to recognize that increasing your drinking levels can be a slippery slope. In fact, research suggests that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of catching COVID-19 according to the World Health Organization.

What’s more, alcohol compromises the body’s immune system and increases the risk of adverse health outcomes and leads more approximately three million deaths a year when there’s no pandemic to deal with. And, alcohol consumption is associated with a number of communicable diseases that can make a person more susceptible to COVID-19.

Alcohol use also can exacerbate mental health issues, increase risk-taking behavior, and lead to more domestic violence, especially in states that are still under strict stay-at-home orders. Even under normal circumstances, heavy drinking is not good for your health. Not only does it impact the immune system, but it can compromise the brain’s stress-coping mechanisms too.

For instance, alcohol directly impacts the brain, causes changes in your mood and behaviors. It also can worsen existing depression and anxiety as well. And people will alcohol use disorders are more likely to develop respiratory illnesses.

How to Know If You’re Drinking Too Much

According to dietary guidelines, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Keep in mind though that this recommendation is not meant to be an average of the drinks you consume over several days.

What’s more, what people consider normal drinking is somewhat subjective and based more on your own body and behaviors. So, an extra drink here or there is usually not something to be concerned about.

But, if your thoughts and your habits surrounding alcohol change, you should be concerned. Unhealthy alcohol use can range from misuse of alcohol to dependency. So, you need to be cognizant of your thought processes and behaviors when it comes to alcohol use—especially when you are vulnerable. Here are some signs that you may be drinking too much and for the wrong reasons.

Drinking for the Wrong Reasons

When people are stressed, anxious, or fearful about the pandemic, it's normal to want to find a way to alleviate the discomfort. However, when you're stressed, you're experiencing new emotions and feelings you're not used to dealing with. So, it's natural to feel a little discombobulated.

The problem is when you turn to unhealthy drinking as a way to adapt to and cope with these new emotions rather than finding a healthier alternative. As a result, if you're drinking to escape, to relax, or to numb your feelings, then this is a red flag.

Worrying About Having Enough Alcohol

Another red flag that your drinking may be becoming an issue, is if you spend time worrying about whether or not the beer you have in the refrigerator or the alcohol you have in your liquor cabinet is going to last. If you are worried about running out and are making extra orders or going to the store frequently, then this is an issue.

While it may be disappointing to run out of wine before your next grocery run, it should not be that much of an issue to skip a night or two of drinking. If, on the other hand, you cannot wait a week without alcohol, this is cause for concern.

Letting Responsibilities Slip

It's normal to feel overwhelmed so much so that you neglect doing housework or delay getting a project done for work. After all, you are trying to balance a job, your kids' education, and your relationships with family and friends. However, if alcohol interferes with your obligations then it is a problem, especially if you are starting to neglect self-care or child care in the process.

Drinking on the Job

The transition from working in an office to working remotely is not an easy one. It can be especially stressful if you also are learning how to use new tools along the way.

But, if you're coping with this job stress by adding a little vodka to your cranberry juice in the morning or doctoring up your coffee in the afternoon, you need to evaluate your drinking habits. Drinking to get through your workday is a clear indication that you have a problem.

Feeling Unhealthy or Rundown

Experiencing regular hangovers are an indication that you're indulging a little too often. Plus, if you're feeling sick, dehydrated, and having regular headaches, these could be signs that you are drinking too often as well. Likewise, if your sleeping, eating, and exercising habits are taking a beating, it's time to take a closer look at your alcohol consumption.

Wanting to Stop But Failing

Whether you experience withdrawal symptoms that keep you using alcohol or you just don't have the willpower to stop drinking or cut back significantly, then you may have an alcohol use disorder. Remember, there is no shame in developing an issue with alcohol. But it's not something you should ignore. Make sure you reach out for help as soon as you can. Many times, resources are a simple phone call away.

Healthier Ways to Cope

Clearly, when it comes to COVID-19 you need some way to deal with stress that comes with living through a pandemic. And while it's OK to have a drink from time to time, it should not be your primary coping mechanism. Instead, look for creative ways to deal with the pressures you are facing. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Eat healthily: Eating healthy nutritious meals helps boost your immune system.
  • Limit alcohol: While it’s OK to have a drink on occasion, you should limit how much you consume. Try to stay within the recommended limits.
  • Exercise: Find a way to incorporate 30 minutes of exercise every day whether that is walking or biking outside or doing yoga or dancing inside. It’s important to keep moving
  • Lift weights: While watching television try doing some simple exercises with hand weights, even soup cans in a bag will work if you don’t have weights in your home. Try doing dumbbell curls or simple lifts.
  • Avoid sitting: If you can, avoid sitting for long periods of time. Take a three- to five-minute break every 30 minutes to walk around, step up and down on a step, or do some jumping jacks in place.
  • Set a schedule: Try to get up at the same time every day, shower, and get dressed in business casual clothing. This will give your life some normalcy and help you to feel good about yourself.
  • Distract yourself: Try not to dwell on the crisis or consume too much news. Listen to music, watch a funny movie, read a book, or play a game instead.
  • Take up a hobby: Learn how to do something new or engage in a hobby you haven’t enjoyed for a while like painting, taking photographs, scrapbooking, or bullet journaling.
  • Learn something new: Is there something you have been wanting to learn how to do? If so, now is the time to engage in learning. Take a free online class, learn how to code, try your skills at cake decorating, whatever is on your bucket list, see if you can make it happen now.
  • Call or skype someone: If you’re feeling lonely pick up your phone or computer and reach out to someone. There’s a really good chance that they are feeling many of the same things you are.
  • Limit social media and news: Consuming too much news or reading inflammatory social media posts can increase your anxiety and stress levels. So, be sure you limit the amount of time you spend consuming these information sources.
  • Find ways to laugh: Incorporating humor into your daily life is a beneficial way of dealing with stress. Watch funny YouTube videos, tell jokes with your kids, or reminisce with friends about funny things you did growing up.
  • Reach out for help: If you’re wondering how to manage your drinking urges or if you just want reassurance that you are doing OK, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 1-800-662-4357.  Additionally, some states like New York, have established a free mental health hotline.

What This Means For You

What you’re experiencing right now unprecedented. So, it’s normal to feel stressed, scared, and alone. And while it’s important to find ways to cope with the vast array of emotions you’re feeling and situations you’re encountering, it’s also important to realize that not all coping mechanisms are healthy. Try to balance your alcohol consumption with healthier ways of coping. Your mind and your body will thank you in the end.

And if you feel you are becoming dependent on alcohol or developing an alcohol use disorder, it’s important to reach out for help. Remember, this type of issue is not a reflection of your character but simply a medical issue that needs to be addressed. Don’t let your alcohol consumption get out of hand, but instead get the help you need.

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Article Sources
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