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Mental Health

How The Pandemic Normalized Stress Drinking

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, no one knew what to expect from each news report. Everything seemed to get worse by the hour without ever slowing down, and people responded to this new source of fear and anxiety in a variety of ways, including by turning to a glass of wine – or several. For just a stressful moment this may not sound so bad, but stress drinking during the pandemic became much more of a widespread issue than you may realize. Luckily, it’s not too late to recognize if it’s a problem, and find a healthier way to cope.

The Pandemic Changed How People Drank

Workplaces and universities shut down in-person spaces in an effort to keep everyone safe, leaving people alone in their apartments or dorms with nothing to do except battle work stressors in a place that was meant to be their safe haven, or read the latest heart-crushing news. Jokes began to surface online about having a cocktail off-camera for your 10 o’clock class or Zoom meeting, or pairing your microwaved lunch with a glass of chardonnay.

It’s natural to want the anxiety-relieving effects of a stiff drink, but it’s much more challenging to retain healthy boundaries when life no longer looks the same. Within six months of the shutdown, 33 states offered cocktails in to-go cups to keep restaurants open and meet the high demand for hard beverages.

It would have been unthinkable before, but ongoing isolation made everything change. If you picked up new drinking habits after shutdowns began, you might ask yourself: do I stress drink? The answer may be yes, but you’re not alone.

“I did drink more during the pandemic,” Maddie*, 22, admits to Her Campus. “There wasn’t a lot to do, and when there’s not much to do, you find ways to pass the time. It was also a very stressful situation – and still is.”

Drinking Surged With Pandemic Anxieties

Drinking surged during 2020. Although it rose 14% for the total U.S. population, the percentage of women who drank heavily skyrocketed by 41% throughout the nation as they became stay-at-home moms, working full time and teaching their kids. Women tend to take on and internalize more stress than their male counterparts, both in college and beyond, and while this study may not have included students, students also took on the responsibility of keeping up with their own studies, and their siblings. And, according to a study published in Preventive Medicine, people that also exhibited symptoms of depression or anxiety had 64% greater odds of drinking more due to the pandemic’s effects on their mental health.

So many of us felt the weight of the world while we wondered if life as we knew it would ever be the same. Dr. Nikki Press, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety, life transitions and trauma, tells Her Campus that the uptick in drinking habits during the pandemic is understandable, but still concerning. 

“In times of stress, uncertainty, or grief, it’s normal to seek relief from those emotions,” she says. “In the pandemic especially, conditions were ripe for rates of drinking to boom: COVID-19 created an environment of anxiety and loneliness, and alcohol was readily available when so many other sources of enjoyment and stress-relief (movies, the gym, etc.) were off the table.” 

Dr. Press says having an occasional drink to relax is not cause for concern, but the conditions of the pandemic have eliminated many of the natural parameters that help people set healthy limits. And without restrictions, alcohol can become a coping mechanism. “Relying on alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress can be problematic for a number of reasons,” she says. But anyone who began to depend on alcohol should have grace with themselves, especially if they’re ready to recognize what the habit does to your health.

Stress Drinking Causes Long-Term Problems

Having a drink or two after a hard night isn’t a problem, but when a drink or two becomes three or four, and every night is a hard night, the potential effects it could have on your body in the long term may motivate you to break the habit before it gets any worse.

Alcohol can create chronic health conditions if abused. Stress drinking regularly may lead to an alcohol addiction, which can result in high blood pressure, heart problems and liver issues. Excessive alcohol also depletes your vitamin B levels, which could cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or brain tissue damage that can destroy your memory retention.

There’s also a risk of developing inflammation and fibrosis within the uterine lining, which can lead to decreased fertility. Alcohol can also reduce your immune system’s strength, even if you’re young and not worried about common illness – or even COVID-19.

Although often anxiety and feelings of depression are what lead to a drinking habit, alcohol can actually exacerbate mental health conditions. Dr. Brian Wind, PhD clinical psychologist and former co-chair of the American Psychological Association’s Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance, offers insight on the link between alcohol and poor mental health.

“People who drink excessively are at a higher risk for depression and anxiety. They may use alcohol as a way to self-medicate their depression and anxiety symptoms but in turn, see their relationships suffer while their financial situation may worsen,” he tells Her Campus. “It’s also possible for people to start experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety when they start drinking due to the neurophysiological and metabolic changes caused by alcohol. This creates a cycle of depression and alcoholism that perpetuates the problem.”

Recovery Takes Effort & Focus

You might consider an increased drinking habit to be normal, given the external circumstances, but Dr. Press emphasizes that “relying on alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress can be problematic for a number of reasons.”

A harmless drink or two isn’t always harmless — even when you have a good reason to need some stress relief. Here’s why:

1. Alcohol is inherently addictive. “Not everyone has the predisposition to become fully hooked, but we are all susceptible to building a tolerance to alcohol and finding ourselves drinking in larger quantities,” Dr. Press says. 

2. Alcohol impairs your judgment, even after just one drink. “You might not realize just how tipsy you are and may end up making decisions you wouldn’t like if you were in a sober state of mind,” he adds. 

3. Over-relying on any coping mechanism can indicate emotional avoidance. “Everyone needs distraction in doses, but we also benefit from the tools that help us to cope with emotions with our own internal resources. Practicing breathing exercises, journaling, or self-soothing thoughts are some examples of internal coping mechanisms. Over-reliance on alcohol or other substances can lead to a habit of numbing our natural emotions rather than processing them in a healthy way,” Dr. Press says.

Your anxieties and stressors are valid, but dealing with them through getting buzzed or drunk isn’t. And while stress drinking certainly doesn’t equate to alcoholism in and of itself, it’s also not a wise long-term coping mechanism to continue holding onto.

Anxiety Requires Healthy Outlets

No one can quit a bad habit without putting something in its place. The next time your stress makes you want to reach for a drink, try a healthier outlet that eases your mind instead. Give yourself time to try new things and you’ll fall in love with other distractors, like creating, exercising, meditating or more.

Finding the right outlet requires getting to know the source of your stress and how your body and mind feel it. Give yourself a few healthy coping mechanisms to replace the urge to reach for your favorite drink. Healthy coping mechanisms are important for lifelong mental and physical health, whether you’re dealing with pandemic stress on top of a college workload or juggling your first remote job.

Dr. Press recommends trying these strategies to cut back on stress drinking: 

1. Set a limit for when, where, and how much you drink. For example, limiting yourself to one beer a night, and only in your kitchen. 

2. Face whatever emotion you’re feeling. When you have the urge to drink, consider, ‘What am I going through right now?’ then try calling or texting a friend to process that instead. 

3. Find other ways to connect! There are plenty of other ways to socialize beyond Happy Hour. Suggest going out for tea or playing a board game, going to a dance class, etc. 

Remember, occasional stress drinking is not the same as alcoholism, so it’s important to differentiate between the two. But if your stress drinking has become a dependency — meaning you can no longer control your intake or function without alcohol — then you might benefit from speaking with a professional. Take a look at the online tools provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), such as their behavioral health treatment locator or virtual recovery resources to find support or recovery options. Speak to your doctor, or consider looking into recovery and therapy options — whether that’s online or in person. 

This time has been so difficult for all of us, and you might see a drink or two as an acceptable way to take away the edge — but make sure you’re not just using alcohol to stop COVID-19 stress. With a little self-care and healthier coping mechanisms, we can continue to push through the pandemic together.

*name has been changed

Studies Referenced:

Akintayo, Christopher and Ojo, Joanna. (2021) Endocrine effects of alcohol and nicotine exposure of alcohol and nicotine exposure in Dams and F1 generation of weaned offspring(s) of female Wistar rats. The FASEB Journal. 

Capasso, Ariadna et al. (2021) Increased alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic: The effect of mental health and age in a cross-sectional sample of social media users in the U.S. Preventative Medicine, Volume 145. 

Gefen, Dalia R. and Fish, Marian C. (2012) Gender Differences in Stress and Coping in First-Year College Students. The Journal of College Orientation, Transition, and Retention.

Pascual, María et al. (2017) Role of the innate immune system in the neuropathological consequences induced by adolescent binge drinking. Journal of Neuroscience Research.

Pollard, Michael S. et al. (2020) Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US. JAMA Network Open.

World Health Organization. (2018) Global status report on alcohol and health 2018.

Expert Sources:

Dr. Brian Wind, PhD Chief Clinical Office at JourneyPure and former co-chair of the American Psychological Association’s Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance

Dr. Nikki Press, Clinical Psychologist

Ginger Abbot

Arizona '17

Ginger is a freelance writer, English grad student, and content editor for the online publication https://classrooms.com. She loves helping undergrads, grad students and young career women make their way in the world. When she's not reading, writing or editing, Ginger enjoys traveling, landscape painting and British television of any kind.
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