During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of us were forced to look at our routines in a whole new light. The uncertainty, stress, and loneliness of the times suddenly put our daily habits under a microscope, from how we work to how we take care of ourselves. A big one you might be reevaluating now? Your relationship with alcohol. For some, pandemic drinking became an all-too-easy way to deal with tough emotions. But for others, quarantining at home was just the right opportunity to cut back on booze as in-person outings became an oddly distant memory.
Anne Fernandez, Ph.D.,1 licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, found that both of these behaviors—drinking more and drinking less—were reported in a national poll2 of adults she conducted in early 2021 studying alcohol use throughout 2020.
The motives behind each one are telling. “ seems particularly pronounced for people who struggled with depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness, and boredom, which makes sense because alcohol use can be a coping mechanism for some people,” Dr. Fernandez tells SELF. On the flip side, those who drank less throughout 2020 predominantly mentioned drinking for social reasons.
Another May 2020 survey found similar patterns: 60% of the 832 people surveyed said their alcohol intake increased during the pandemic, and those who experienced greater COVID-related stress downed more drinks over a greater amount of days, according to a paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.3 That said, 13% of people reported drinking less since the start of the pandemic, partially because they weren’t able to go to bars.
Regardless of which side you fell on during the earlier days of COVID-19, your drinking habits will likely change if you begin to feel more comfortable making plans at restaurants, bars, and in other people’s homes. (With variants of the coronavirus, including the delta variant, spreading throughout the country, you might not feel comfortable going out—so keep doing whatever feels right for you.) Ahead, SELF asked experts to explain what those changes could look like as the pandemic evolves, and how you can approach alcohol in the healthiest way for you.
1. You might end up binge drinking or drinking more than you planned to.
Once you got through that first month of quarantine, you may have realized that drinking alone (or in virtual settings) just wasn’t the same. So what happens when happy hour meetups ramp back up and you find yourself surrounded by good company and even better cocktails? You might drink more than you actually intend to because you maybe haven’t been in that situation for a while. (For reference, drinking in moderation means having one drink per day for people assigned female at birth or two drinks per day for people assigned male at birth, per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Binge drinking is determined by your blood alcohol level, but for many people, it typically means having at least five drinks in two hours for people assigned male at birth or four drinks in two hours for people assigned female at birth.)
If you don’t want to overdo it, Dr. Fernandez suggests experimenting with a few strategies to help keep your intake in check. “Setting plans or limits ahead of time can be helpful,” she says, especially if the people you’re seeing tend to encourage lots of drinking. “Making decisions when you’re starting to get more intoxicated becomes more difficult and less and less successful.”
One thing you can try is to give yourself a drink total before you head out, so you know to stop once you’ve hit your cap. (If you regularly find yourself making excuses to go past that limit or don’t feel capable of stopping once you reach it, we’ll discuss that later.) Having a full glass of water after each alcoholic drink is another way to be mindful of your pace. You’ll also stay hydrated as a bonus, which can help reduce your risk of a bad hangover.
2. Your drinking tolerance might feel totally different.
Anyone can find themselves in a risky situation if they’re not aware of how drinking more or less has changed their tolerance, which signals the level of “drunk” they’re accustomed to after having a certain amount of alcohol.
“If you started drinking more during the pandemic, your tolerance to alcohol may have increased,” Dr. Fernandez says. “People sometimes rely on their own perception of how intoxicated they are, but the more tolerant you are, the less you feel the intoxicating effects that can impair driving.” That’s why it’s more important than ever to have a transportation plan in place if you’re drinking away from home—ride share, public transit, or a D.D.—so that you don’t feel tempted to drive if you “feel” okay.
If you cut back during the pandemic, your tolerance may have decreased, meaning you might feel the effects of that second drink a lot faster. In this situation it’s important to be especially aware when drinking in new settings and to take it more slowly than you normally would so that you don’t accidentally get sick or maybe do something else that you might regret. (Again, going in with a plan for spacing out drinks and imbibing slowly is huge here.)
3. You might feel some anxiety around drinking and socializing.
Because we’re all so used to staying at home now, it’s understandable to feel a bit of anxiety in social situations. With that, you may find yourself drinking more than you normally do so you don’t feel awkward making small talk with people you don’t know well or haven’t seen in a while. If that’s the case, then you may want to think about what scenarios you’re comfortable socializing in while sober. For now, maybe you feel better hanging out with just a few friends and going for a bike ride together. Over time, as things continue to reopen, you may feel more excited about going out and seeing more people, diffusing the need to use alcohol as a crutch in those moments.
However, you might completely avoid social situations involving alcohol if you’ve been drinking less for the past year, because it feels awkward being the only one who’s not drinking or having to explain to others why you’re not. But you shouldn’t let that stop you from having fun!
“You don’t want to think about it so much that you paralyze yourself and can’t go out and have a good time,” Alexander Hubbell, M.D., MPH,4 an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School and program director of Addiction Medicine and Outpatient Substance Use Disorder Services at MHealth Fairview, tells SELF. If that sounds familiar, before going out with friends, try setting the boundary that you will not drink if you don’t want to. You may find it helpful to order seltzer water with lime or a mocktail so you’re holding something and sipping something along with others. Over time, you will hopefully feel more relaxed about it and feel less pressure to drink.
4. You might decide to stop drinking altogether.
If you cut back on drinking (or stopped entirely) when social events hit a halt, it may have come as a surprise that you really enjoy drinking less—or not at all. If you’ve been happier without the bar, then it could be the perfect time to create a new narrative for yourself, says Dr. Hubbell. That can be as simple as: “I can go out and enjoy my friends and not give in to the pressure to drink,” Dr. Hubbell says.
But how do you do that, exactly? “Start with small groups of people and bring it up beforehand,” Dr. Hubbell says. “Make not drinking an option that feels good.” You can suggest an activity that doesn’t involve alcohol, like going to a workout class or a museum. If you do go out in a situation where drinking might be involved, then you can say something like, “Hey, I’ve noticed that I feel better when I don’t drink, so I’m not going to order alcohol, but I don’t want that to stop you from getting a drink if you want one.”
Setting these small but clear boundaries can make you feel more confident in your decisions and help you socialize in a way that feels genuinely satisfying to you.
5. Your drinking could become a more serious problem.
Alcohol can get in the way of daily life sometimes, even if we don’t mean for it to. For example, maybe you’re going out so much now that you finally have the option, and you’re suddenly dealing with severe hangovers that prevent you from getting important errands done. Or maybe your drinking habits are causing you to miss work deadlines or putting stress on your relationships.
These behaviors can signal alcohol use disorder (AUD), which many people find surprising since they assume problematic drinking needs to be severe, says Dr. Hubbell. Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition whereby you might crave alcohol or feel like you don’t have control over how much you’re drinking. Health professionals use a set of guidelines to determine AUD and its severity, which can be mild, moderate, or severe, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).5
If you’re simply going out more often or drinking more regularly, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have AUD. But if you’re noticing that your alcohol consumption during the pandemic has increased, and you’re worried about how your drinking habits are affecting your life, then it’s worth reaching out for help.
You may want to start by talking to your doctor or therapist if you have one and are comfortable doing so, or you can look into online sobriety groups like Tempest, a community that offers videos, coaching, and peer support to help you stop drinking. There are also online peer support options for specific communities, like Queer AA, which focuses on the unique issues LGBTQ+ folks face. The NIAAA has a website with strategies to help you reduce your drinking, as well as links to various support groups for people who want additional help. And finally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has information about numerous resources including a national hotline that can help you identify the kind of support you might be looking for.
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