Study: Who Is Drinking More Alcohol During COVID-19?
By Kara-Marie Hall, RN, BSN, CCRN
January 5, 2021
According to a recent study published in JAMA Network Open, as the COVID-19 pandemic surges, more people may be turning to alcohol to cope with unprecedented uncertainty and stress.
The study’s researchers found that alcohol consumption among adults increased by 14% from 2019 to 2020. Women, in particular, exhibited a 41% increase in alcohol consumption over a 2019 baseline.1
The survey study was published in September. But the implications for how to cope in a healthier way are especially relevant as people pursue “Dry January”—an alcohol-free month to start the year.
Light to moderate alcohol consumption is considered acceptable for healthy adults. However, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to short and long-term health effects. These effects can include injuries from incidents like car accidents, high blood pressure, and liver disease.2
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines excessive alcohol consumption as:2
- For women:Four more drinks during a single occasion or eight or more drinks per week
- For men:Five or more drinks during a single occasion or 15 or more drinks per week
“Alcohol can be consumed as a strategy to manage emotional stress,” Claire Nicogossian, Psy. D, a clinical psychologist based in Rhode Island, tells Verywell. “Specifically, the pandemic has created a collective grief and loss of safety and security with incredible uncertainty.”
What This Means For You
Sometimes, it’s not easy to know whether you or a loved one excessively consumes alcohol. Many drinks, such as beer, wine, and distilled spirits, vary in their alcohol content. It’s good to know the alcohol content in a beverage so you can make well-informed decisions about your drinking, and limit your consumption throughout the week.
Why Are People Consuming More Alcohol?
This increased alcohol consumption may stem from stress and uncertainty provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Prior to COVID-19, alcohol was a significant public health and mental health concern,” Nicogossian says. “The pandemic has created a host of issues impacting every facet of life and functioning.”
She says these issues can include:
- Having to work on the frontlines (such as in a hospital)
- Working from home
- Having to manage children’s schooling
- Loss of a loved one from COVID-19
- The loss of financial resources and/or emotional and social support
Before the pandemic, coping with stress may have meant going out to watch a movie or work out in the gym. You could easily hang out with friends and family when you needed some extra support. Now, social distancing and other safety measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus have changed the way we practice leisure and self-care.
“The resources and activities individuals engage in to reduce stress and improve wellbeing have been significantly altered, put on hold or canceled altogether,” Nicogossian says.
She notes that in turn, alcohol is a readily available option and is heavily marketed as a normal way to cope with stress. “Quarantine cocktail parties and gatherings on Zoom have become popular as well as delivery services of alcohol to homes,” she says.
Who Is Most at Risk for Excessive Alcohol Consumption?
“Individuals who are at most risk for using alcohol in excess during this time are varied and complex,” Nicogossian says.
However, she does state that certain situations may put people more at risk for excessive alcohol consumption like people experiencing:
- Inadequate social support
- Limited finances
- A pre-existing mental health, substance abuse, or dependence issue
- Limited, passive, or escaping/numbing coping skills
- The loss of access to an alcohol or substance dependence treatment program that they were a part of before the pandemic
She adds that parents, in particular, may also be at high risk for excessive alcohol consumption due to the new demands presented by the pandemic.
“[Research has shown that] parents with children in the home have higher rates of reported stress and more symptoms of depression and anxiety, compared to adults without children during the pandemic,” she says.
Signs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption
Nicogossian points to a few signs that can alert you to the negative impact of excessive alcohol consumption in your life or a loved one’s:
- Having trouble caring for your children and being present for them
- Feeling tired, irritable, and unmotivated
- Experiencing headaches and noise sensitivity
- Being depressed and anxious
- Having increased conflict in relationships
- Hiding alcohol use from loved ones
“Alcohol use at first may reduce symptoms of stress or tension, however, this only lasts for a short amount of time, minutes perhaps to take the first edge off,” she says. The more alcohol consumed, the greater the chances of developing adverse health effects.
“Healthy coping starts with knowing yourself, being in tune with your stress levels and when you don’t feel like yourself, knowing what you can do, and what will be effective to bring down your stress or help to manage stress and also improve well-being,” Nicogossian says.
Ideally, coping skills should involve activities that directly reduce stress or enhance your wellbeing. For example, a few of these activities can include:
- Following creative pursuits
- Getting enough sleep
- Staying hydrated
- Eating nutritious food
- Taking care of your emotional health such as going to counseling/therapy
If you believe that you or a loved one has a problem with excessive alcohol consumption, Nicogossian says that it’s normal to feel a variety of emotions, ranging everywhere from guilt to worry. “I want to encourage you to allow yourself to feel but to be gentle and compassionate with yourself,” she says. “Now is not the time to judge yourself or be critical of yourself.”
She advises that you reach out to a supportive person or a healthcare provider to help you with your journey to reduce your alcohol use. “Therapy and counseling can also be a powerful and supportive act of self-care to not only get support but also learn skills on how to manage stress, decrease alcohol use and improve overall well-being,” she says.