The global COVID-19 pandemic has affected a great many people’s mental health. We have all responded with different ways to cope throughout the subsequent stay-at-home orders. One of which is the changes in people’s drinking behaviors.
Alcohol is the fourth leading cause of preventable death in America, and at the end of the first month of lockdown in March 2020, online alcohol sales increased 262% compared to 2019. The increase in alcohol sales did not stay at these levels; however, overall data between March 1, 2020, and April 18, 2020, demonstrated that in-store purchases were up by 21%, and online alcohol sales were up by 234% compared to 2019.
It is widely acknowledged that the following alcohol use is classed as unhealthy and problematic and can lead to the development of alcohol use disorder:
- Binge drinking – consuming five drinks for a man and four drinks for a woman over a two-hour period.
- Heavy Drinking – engaging in binge drinking on five or more days in the past month.
- High-intensity Drinking - consuming alcohol two or more times the binge drinking thresholds.
In a UK 2020 study, 21% of regular drinkers admitted to drinking more frequently during lockdown, with 15% drinking more per session and 18% of daily drinkers consuming greater quantities.
The reasons for increased alcohol consumption during COVID-19 are linked to financial difficulties, familial tension, uncertainty about the future, and social isolation - all of which pose a significant threat to people’s overall well-being.
Social isolation has significant psychological, sociological, and physiological impacts. Stress levels among the general population have increased dramatically. Research shows that stressful situations frequently trigger alcohol misuse, and the pandemic has prompted alcohol misuse among those suffering from anxiety, depression, and elevated stress levels.
The Dangers of Heavy Drinking
The dangers of immediate excessive alcohol consumption are serious, with an elevated risk of harm through accidents or conflict. This affects not only the individual but also the mental health of other household members who may suffer from increased tension or behavioral issues caused by another’s drinking habits.
Excessive drinking is associated with increased violence, poverty, crime, sexually transmitted diseases, and social issues. Additionally, there is a severe risk of psychological and physiological health from medium to long-term use.
Alcohol affects all parts of the human body, and the long-term risks of alcohol consumption include:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Liver disease
- Development of co-occurring mental health disorders
Habits are quickly formed but hard to break. If a person’s drinking levels have risen throughout the pandemic, they are likely to continue with this intake even when things return to normal.
Managing Alcohol Consumption
If we want to break heavy drinking habits, several steps can be taken to lower consumption to healthier levels. The following are some tips to reduce alcohol intake:
- Set realistic goals
- Set a limit on how much you will consume each session
- Take drink-free days each week
- Reduce the amount of alcohol purchased online
- Set a fixed budget for alcohol expenditure
- Have periods of abstinence
- Have a smaller, or lower strength drink
- Swap, or intermix, with low or zero alcohol alternatives
- Seek advice online
- Attend remote support groups
- Receive remote one-on-one counseling
- Use apps to monitor consumption
Alcohol affects everyone differently, and being unable to reduce intake, or suffering from withdrawal symptoms, is a crucial indicator of the development of alcohol use disorder or alcoholism. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms (AWS) can range from mild to severe and can be fatal in rare situations. AWS usually start two to five days after a person’s last drink and peak at seven to ten days. As AWS can trigger life-threatening health complications, it is essential to seek treatment if you are suffering from any of the following symptoms:
- A high fever
- Extreme agitation
- Extreme confusion
- High blood pressure
- Visual hallucinations
- Auditory hallucinations
- Sensory hallucinations
A key point to remember when altering your drinking habits is to take it one day at a time. Alcohol is a habit-forming substance which means that it can be hard to reduce intake. Treat yourself with compassion, understanding, and acceptance while actively attempting to drink less. If you are struggling to lower your alcohol intake, you must seek support from your family and a professional. Treatment for alcohol abuse is effective with the proper support.