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How Alcohol Has Affected Us During COVID-19

August 24, 2020
How Alcohol Has Affected Us During COVID-19 - Lark Health

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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many changes in our daily lives, and some may affect health without being directly related to a COVID-19 infection. It turns out, for example, that alcohol consumption has increased since Americans began staying at home to slow the spread of the virus. Many employees are even drinking while working. 

Excessive drinking can be harmful to health. It is easy to slip into the habit, especially during times like the one we are in now.

Home Alcohol Consumption Is Up - Way Up

Retail sales of alcoholic beverages increased by 5% in March and 10% in April [1]. During the week of March 15 to 21, when many Americans were told to stay at home, alcoholic beverage sales increased by 55% compared to during the previous week [2]. 

Another stat? Nearly 1 in 3 Americans have reported drinking alcohol while working from home during the pandemic. Those numbers can translate into physical and emotional health concerns as well as trouble at work.

Reasons for Increased Consumption

If you look at common causes for increased alcohol consumption, it may not be surprising that alcohol use is up now. People tend to drink more under stressful circumstances (and when usual patterns like social drinking at bars are disturbed).

  • Feeling stress or anxiety: anxiety now may come from an uncertain future such as when or how the pandemic situation may end or how it's being handled by policymakers.
  • Worry about unemployment: the economy was ground to a halt in March and April by the government, and unemployment went up substantially as a result.
  • Social isolation or loneliness: with physical distancing measures, many people have not seen friends in person for months. Compared to introverts, extroverts may have more trouble with the additional hours spent alone.
  • Troublesome living situations: such as being in lockdown with loud or messy roommates or children who never go to school or to friends' houses, and that stress can be magnified if you are now also working from home and unable to leave for a few hours of relief at the office.

Another reason why people may choose to drink at home, while alone, is that there is scarcely anywhere else to go or anybody to drink with! Bars and restaurants are no longer the gathering places they were, and having a friend over for a glass of wine can be unsafe or unappealing if it involves masks, sitting outside at least 6 feet apart, and having them bring their own glass.

Drinking Patterns During Physical Distancing

Before COVID-19, social drinking may have been part of the usual weekly routine. Habits may have included cocktails once a week with coworkers or meeting friends on a Saturday night for dinner and a glass of wine. 

Without these possibilities anymore, social drinking may include online gatherings on Zoom or another platform. There might be happy hours at work with colleagues, or hanging out with friends, each drinking alcohol in their own homes, instead of being physically together at a bar.

Some drinking may be happening alone. For example, there might be a drink or two during the work day, or at lunch or dinner, or sometime during the day or evening when you feel lonely, stressed, or bored. Often, these drinks may be additions; that is, you did not used to have those servings of alcohol before COVID-19 started.

Effects of Drinking on the Job

In most cases, alcohol and work do not mix very well. It is not only a question of being unable to safely drive or operate machinery while under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol's short-term effects can impair your ability to work effectively. They can include:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Confusion
  • Slower thinking
  • Longer reaction time
  • Poorer sleep quality.

These can all add up to less productivity. Even if not, there is a chance that alcohol consumption is against your employer's policy. 

It is important to realize that there is a good chance someone will discover your alcohol consumption even though you are working from home. Clues to intoxication or alcohol use can include lower-quality work and slurred speech during meetings.

Alcohol Consumption and Chronic Conditions

Excessive alcohol consumption can seriously affect long-term health. It increases risk for stroke, cardiomyopathy (a form of heart disease), liver diseases, pancreatitis, and certain cancers. Alcohol consumption can also be of concern for people with certain chronic conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, prediabetes, and obesity. 

Alcohol's Effects on COVID-19 Risk

Alcohol consumption may also directly impact risk for COVID-19. Excessive alcohol use "weakens our immune systems over time,"[3] which can mean an increased risk for viral infections, including with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

It also appears that alcohol consumption may increase the risk of getting "acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia, which are sometimes associated with COVID-19."[4

Are You Drinking Too Much?

It is not always easy to tell whether casual drinking is on its way to (or has already become) problem drinking. Answering these questions may give you an idea.

  • Do you have a history or family history of drinking or other substance abuse?
  • Are you under severe stress, such as due to loss of job, getting COVID-19 or having other health concerns, or anxiety about the future?
  • Do you feel as though you need an "escape" from being home all the time now?
  • Have you recently increased your alcohol consumption or started drinking during daytime or weekday hours when you did not previously do so?
  • Does your alcohol consumption affect your work or relationships?

Drinking more than 1 drink a day for women or 2 drinks a day for men can be unhealthy and a sign of a potential problem with drinking.

Strategies for Reducing Alcohol Use

If you are experiencing excessive or increased alcohol consumption, there are some strategies that may work to get rid of the habit. Keeping your home free from alcohol can be an impactful first step. Also, staying healthy, such as eating well and sleeping enough, can help improve focus and reduce the urge to drink.

Another tip is to establish habits of doing something else every time you have the urge to drink. Getting out of the house and taking a walk can clear your head and get your mind off of alcohol. Working out, inside or outside, can also help. If working is triggering the urge to drink, it is okay to take a break from working until the urge passes, since the time spent on break will be more than made up with increased efficiency from not being intoxicated.

For some people, being alone can be a trigger to drink. If that is the case, phoning or video chatting with a friend, or talking to someone in the house, can prevent loneliness. It can even help to have a work colleague get on a video chat with you as you each do your own separate work and mute each of your microphones so as not to disturb each other.

Getting Help

If you have concerns about your alcohol consumption or that of someone close to you, it is important to get help as soon as possible to make it easier to stop problem drinking and to minimize effects on health and life. There are many forms that help can take [5]. 

  • Counseling and therapy can include learning to handle triggers for drinking, such as managing stress in other ways, as well as set and work towards goals and build a support system.
  • Certain medications can reduce the draw of alcohol by inducing vomiting when you drink, reducing cravings, or reducing the "high" that alcohol causes.
  • A detox for severe addiction can include stopping alcohol use under supervision, such as at a hospital or treatment center.
  • Group therapy includes support from other people who have overused alcohol and are in recovery.

COVID-19 has overwhelmed daily life, and a response for many people has been to drink more alcohol to cope. Excessive alcohol use can be unhealthy and interfere with work and home life, but help is available if you or someone you know needs it.

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