As COVID-19 has descended upon our world, drinking rates are up and alcohol purchases have increased dramatically. Perhaps you’ve experienced it: you aren’t even considering having a drink, and then you see several social media posts of friends toasting with their glasses. Suddenly, you find yourself wanting a drink as well.  Or perhaps a well-intentioned friend shares the now viral meme of a “mom-sized” wine glass which is actually the equivalent of an entire wine bottle.  For many, these solutions to physical distancing are already leading to increases in alcohol consumption.

Discussions about drinking can be a welcome relief to some, while others may feel threatened or judged. For those who may be teetering on the edge of problematic drinking, or those in recovery, messages that normalize frequent or excessive alcohol use can be especially problematic. Coupled with the added stressors related to COVID-19, including caretaking challenges, work-related stress, and fears about health and finances, it is critical that individuals do what they can to avoid adding another challenge to the mix.  We can help ourselves and others by ensuring we are making and promoting healthy decisions about alcohol use, cutting back if we have a concern or recognize an issue, and identifying additional coping strategies if alcohol use is currently our primary go-to solution. 

Lower Risk vs. High Risk Drinking

One way of ensuring that your relationship with alcohol is not problematic – as is the case for a majority of Americans –  is by completing  a self assessment of your drinking behaviors. There are a variety of confidential, online tools designed for this purpose, including this Alcohol Screening Test by the Center on Addiction. These resources are not intended to diagnose an alcohol use disorder. Instead, you will receive health and risk guidelines based on your responses, which may include a recommendation to further explore your drinking with a licensed professional. With only about 12% of the population having an alcohol use disorder, most will not receive that specific feedback. You can also explore the continuum below to get an idea of where your drinking falls.

Continuum of Alcohol Use and Misuse

AbstinenceHave never consumed alcohol or are no longer consuming alcohol  
Lower Risk DrinkingFor healthy men:  no more than 4 drinks in a day AND no more than 14 drinks in a week  e.g., 3 drinks every day is not low risk because it exceeds the weekly limit
For healthy women: no more than 3 drinks in a day AND no more than 7 drinks in a week e.g. 1 drink a day would be considered low risk because it does not exceed the weekly limit
*In some instances (e.g. pregnancy, use of prescription medications or other substances, operating a vehicle or heavy equipment) these guidelines do not apply and consultation with a physician may be needed.
At-Risk DrinkingDrinking in excess of the guidelines, but not experiencing physical, mental, social or legal harms/problems.
IntoxicationDrinking that results in physical effects impacting level of consciousness, cognition, perception, affect or behavior, or other psycho‐physiological functions.
Harmful DrinkingDrinking that causes physical, mental, social, or legal harm.
Alcohol Use DisorderDevelops after repeated alcohol use and typically includes a strong desire to drink, difficulty controlling use, use despite harmful consequences, prioritizing alcohol use over other activities and obligations, increased tolerance, and sometimes physical withdrawal.

Additional information available here.

Finding Other Ways To Cope

For many, a drink at the end of the day serves as a much-deserved escape, especially in the current environment. However, just as many of us are taking the steps necessary to be mindful of our physical health, we must do the same for our mental health. If you find that you’re drinking more than you’d like, or if you feel like you just need a break and want to avoid using alcohol to manage your emotions – an approach that doesn’t really work in the long run – consider instead one of the activities below. We’ve divided them into four categories: relax, distract, reflect, and connect, and each has been designed to meet a specific desired outcome without the side effects of alcohol. If you find yourself using alcohol as a way to calm down or unwind, consider choosing an activity from the “relax” column. Interesting fact about this: Alcohol actually makes one less capable of managing stress, increases anxiety and, in turn, increases drinking.  Next, if you often turn to alcohol use as a diversion from other responsibilities, try choosing something from the “distract” column. If you feel  like being contemplative, find a reflective activity to do instead of drinking. And if you’re a social drinker,  choose one of the “connect” activities to engage socially without the booze – or get creative and plan a virtual alcohol-free social event for your online community. We’ve also left some space for you to add your own ideas.

Instead of drinking, consider the following ways to:

Take a hot shower or bathWatch a funny movie or showWrite in a journalDo a “Zoom” and tea (or coffee) event
Do a guided meditationRead a bookMake a gratitude list (i.e. name 5 things you are grateful for, 3 good things that happened today, etc)Join a virtual book group or affinity/interest based community
Engage in a self-care activityListen to a podcastGo for a walk around your neighborhoodWrite an email or old-fashioned letter to someone

As we continue to navigate the unchartered waters of physical distancing and the myriad of stressors that are impacting society during this time, it is more critical than ever that we pay as much attention to our mental health as we do to our physical health. By adopting healthy coping techniques, being mindful of the degree to which you are consuming alcohol, and looking out for colleagues or loved ones to do the same, you can help to alleviate some of these stressors and set yourself on a healthy path for this moment and beyond.