In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans have been panic-buying more than just toilet paper and eggs. U.S. alcohol sales spiked 55% in the week ending March 21, according to data from market research firm Nielsen. Online alcohol sales were up 243%.
Much of that can probably be attributed to stocking up on booze for several weeks’ worth of self-isolation. According to a survey by Alcohol.org, 1 in 5 respondents said they stockpiled alcohol for just that reason. However, many people are also drinking more in general: 1 in 3 respondents said they are likely to increase alcohol consumption in isolation.
While a few extra drinks to get you through the stress and boredom of being stuck at home might not be a big deal, it can become a slippery slope.
How much drinking is considered normal?
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Keep in mind that these guidelines refer to the amount you drink on any single day ― it’s not meant to be an average of drinks consumed over several days.
However, these are just guidelines; what’s considered “normal” drinking is somewhat subjective and based on your own body and behaviors. “If you don’t have a problem with alcohol, an extra glass of wine here and there isn’t something to be worried about,” said Brian Wind, chief clinical officer at alcohol and drug treatment center JourneyPure. “People are bored, stuck in their homes and really stressed out. For some, kicking back with a drink is perfectly normal.”
It’s when your habits and thoughts surrounding alcohol begin to change for the worse that you should be concerned. Unhealthy alcohol use exists on a spectrum, which can range from alcohol misuse to abuse to dependency, according to Sari Eitches, an integrative internist who practices in Los Angeles.
“During the challenges of the looming threat of the pandemic, plus the stresses of lockdown, we are naturally turning to any coping skills we have available,” she said. “Many of us are shut off from our best coping mechanisms, including social interactions, yoga class, time with extended family and friends and even time in nature.”
That means some people turn to coping methods that are available at home, including alcohol. Maybe that includes you. If so, keep an eye out for these signs that you might be drinking too much.
1. You drink because you’re stressed.
In general, it’s considered problematic when alcohol intake increases during stressful situations, “even during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Amanda Brown, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and an associate at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “It means that we are using alcohol to cope with the negative emotions caused by stress.”
Brown explained that when you’re stressed, you experience new or uncontrolled emotions that you’re not used to dealing with and your emotional equilibrium falls off balance. To adapt to these changes, you turn to coping mechanisms that help regulate emotions.
“But not all coping mechanisms are adaptive,” she said. “Alcohol use, for example, is a maladaptive coping mechanism that can ultimately cause more harm for an individual.”
2. You drink because you’re bored.
The thought of spending another Saturday night at home in front of the TV might seem unbearable. That is, unless you also have a glass (OK, bottle) of wine at your side.
Similar to drinking due to stress, drinking to cope with boredom is a red flag, according to Andrew Mendonsa, a clinical psychologist with addiction treatment center Sprout Health Group. “When you say, ‘I’m bored at home, I’m going to turn to the bottle,’ that’s when you start to cross the line,” he said.
When you feel bored or restless, Mendonsa recommends going for a walk outside (as long as it’s safe to do so) or calling friends and family. If you feel like you can’t rely on these healthy coping methods alone and must drink, you likely have a problematic relationship with alcohol.
3. You drink on the job.
Transitioning to a fully remote job can be tough if you’re not used to working from home. It may be stressful learning new tools and communication methods. Plus, you might struggle with productivity. With no office to drive to and no boss looking over your shoulder, there may be more temptation to Irish up your morning coffee or crack open a beer at 3 p.m.
“If you’re working from home and have justified that it’s okay to drink while working, you are mistaken,” Wind said. “While working from home, you should conduct yourself just as you would being on the job. If you’re drinking to get through the workday, it’s a sign that you have a problem.”
4. You’re constantly worried about having enough alcohol.
Another way to know that you’re drinking too much during isolation is if you worry about having enough alcohol and find yourself making extra trips to the store or gas station just to buy it. “We should be minimizing trips that aren’t essential right now, so if getting alcohol feels like an essential to you and you’re going out often to stock up on it, you’re probably drinking too much,” Wind said.
5. Your responsibilities are falling to the wayside.
Balancing your job, your child’s education and relationships with family and friends is hard enough without a pandemic adding to the chaos. It’s understandable if you drop the ball on your obligations sometimes. However, Eitches said that if alcohol use interferes with your priorities and obligations in any realm of your life ― including work, social connections and self-care ― it’s a sign that there’s a problem.
6. You’ve been making poor decisions while drunk.
Many of us have let a secret slip or gone overboard online shopping after a few drinks. Hey, mistakes happen ― we’re not here to judge. But those alcohol-induced slip-ups should be few and far between. If you regularly make decisions when intoxicated that you wouldn’t make or would regret when you are sober, there’s a larger issue at hand, Eitches said.
7. You don’t feel good physically.
Hangovers are a reminder that overindulging on alcohol isn’t great for your body. So if you regularly wake up with headaches, sensitivity to light, dehydration and other hangover symptoms, it’s a sign you’re going overboard.
Eitches added that generally feeling crappy due to drinking, due to disrupted sleep and eating patterns or less motivation to exercise, are also warning signs.
8. You experience withdrawal symptoms.
When you drink often enough, your body becomes reliant on alcohol to function. Stopping alcohol intake when your body is dependent on it results in withdrawal symptoms, which range from mild to severe and can include shaky hands, anxiety, sweating, racing heartbeat, hallucinations and even seizures. You may begin to experience certain withdrawal symptoms within six hours of your last drink.
If mild hangovers have progressed to more serious signs of withdrawal when you stop drinking, it’s definitely time to reevaluate your relationship with alcohol.
9. You want to stop drinking but can’t.
Finally, if you recognize that drinking alcohol affects your life negatively but can’t seem to slow down, it’s time to get help. Fortunately, there are many resources available.
If you’re experiencing difficulty coping or having problems with drug or alcohol use, you should immediately call your doctor or the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). They can refer you to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also has an online treatment navigator to help you find and evaluate the right type of care for you.
Remember that we’re all experiencing an unprecedented situation that is scary and challenging for many people. We all use different coping strategies, some healthier than others. If you become dependent on alcohol during this time, it’s not a reflection of your character, intelligence or strength. We all need help sometimes, so don’t be afraid to seek it out.