The past year has been a stressful one. And while most of us might typically deal with stress by scheduling a vacation, a dinner date with friends, reuniting with family or even hitting the gym for a workout, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to find new ways to cope.
For many people, this has included a greater reliance on alcohol. In March 2020, alcohol sales jumped 55 percent following the issuance of stay-at-home orders, and an August 2020 RAND study indicated that binge drinking was on the rise.
These statistics probably don’t come as a surprise, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t cause for concern, says Kelly Driscoll, BS, a behavioral health therapist at Mirmont Treatment Center, part of Main Line Health.
“We are accustomed to thinking of addiction as a really noticeable, significant change in someone’s behavior. But in many cases, addiction starts with small changes that aren’t always noticeable,” she says.
These ‘small changes’ might mean having two or three drinks a night instead of one, starting to drink earlier in the day, or finding it difficult to get through the day without alcohol. At first, these might not seem like behaviors that are indicative of a larger problem. But if they start to affect your mood, sleep, quality of life or the ability to fulfill professional or personal responsibilities, it may be time to ask for help.
One factor in the risk of pandemic drinking rates is that many of us are drinking alone.
“A lot of people view and participate in drinking as a social activity but the pandemic hasn’t allowed for that. Instead, many people are drinking at home either by themselves or in the company of their immediate family, who may not be able to recognize a change in behavior as a result of drinking or might not know how to bring it up,” says Driscoll. Drinking alone—especially when you don’t have to worry about driving home or getting up early to commute in the morning—can also make it harder to limit the number of drinks you have.
Another contributing factor is that many people are avoiding hospitals and treatment facilities because of concerns about COVID-19 safety. But with virtual and in-person care options available, there have never been more options available for care. Asking for help is essential, says Driscoll. "Seeking help allows us to better understand—and better treat—the issues that may be contributing to increased alcohol use. It also allows us to work with patients and identify healthy coping skills."
Drinking to numb the pain, be it mental or physical, is not a long-term solution and can eventually lead to serious health issues.
How to recover from a cycle of pandemic drinking
All of these factors have made pandemic drinking a very real issue for many people. Maybe you’ve started to cut back on drinking as stay-at-home orders and COVID restrictions lift and haven’t found it to be a difficult transition. But if not and you’re still using alcohol to cope with stress, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.
“There is no shame in seeking help. It’s easy to view yourself as in control of your addiction and have this attitude of, ‘Oh I can stop anytime’ but it’s rarely ever that easy,” says Driscoll. “If you are having trouble cutting back on alcohol or are simply looking for other ways to deal with stress so that alcohol doesn’t become a problem for you, I would really encourage you to reach out for help.”
Driscoll and her colleagues at Mirmont Treatment Center work with patients to develop a treatment plan based on individual needs and goals for drug and alcohol recovery. In an atmosphere of trust and safety, patients have the opportunity to work through issues that may fuel addiction to drugs or alcohol. The goal of this process is to develop new skills, attitudes and behaviors.