When “Drinking to Cope” Becomes Cause for Concern
If you’ve ever turned to alcohol to “take the edge off” after a challenging day or week, you’re not alone. Drinking to cope – versus drinking strictly for pleasure – has become increasingly common in the past few years. Particularly concerning, however, is the sharp rise in alcohol consumption since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, a survey published by The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that over 60% of respondents were drinking more than they had prior to the pandemic, with at least 45% citing “increased stress” as their reason for drinking.
The collective trauma we’ve all been facing as a result of this public health crisis is largely unavoidable, and the need to cope justified. But how do we know when a coping mechanism has become problematic, and how can we find healthier ways to process our emotions?
Let’s start by understanding what makes us turn to alcohol in the first place.
A Perfect Storm
An increase in alcohol dependency amid times of crisis and adversity isn’t new. Catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 were also followed by a nationwide rise in alcohol use disorder (AUD). The impact of COVID-19, on the other hand, has combined the stress and anxiety that come with uncertainty about the future with another powerful trigger: loneliness.
“The level of social isolation many of us have experienced over the past several months can lead to, and worsen, symptoms of anxiety or depression,” said Caitlin Reider, Substance Abuse Counselor at ThedaCare. “At a time when we most need the support of our loved ones, friends and villages, we’ve been forced to find new ways to cope with tragedy.”
“The level of social isolation many of us have experienced over the past several months can lead to, and worsen, symptoms of anxiety or depression.”
Caitlin Reider, SAC, ThedaCare
For many, turning to alcohol provides a sense of temporary relief from feelings of stress or anxiety. As the frequency or urgency of use grows, however, so do the negative consequences.
When Casual Consumption Becomes Dangerous Dependency
Dietary guidelines suggest limiting alcohol intake to two drinks or less each day for men, and one drink or less each day for women, but as Reider pointed out, diagnosing alcohol use disorder can be much more complicated than simply assessing the number of alcoholic drinks someone consumes in a day.
“Alcohol use disorder, previously known as alcohol dependence or alcoholism, is a chronic disease,” said Reider. “Despite what many may think, drinking in excess does not alone indicate a problem.”
For those wondering if their drinking has become problematic, Reider suggests asking yourself a few key questions:
- Are you able to limit your drinking when you want to?
- Do you continue to drink despite personal or professional problems?
- Do you find yourself needing to drink more than you once did to get the same effect?
- Do you ever want a drink so badly you can’t think of anything else?
- Have you given up or cut back on activities that were important to you in order to drink?
- Have you gotten into situations while or after consuming alcohol that increased your chances of getting hurt?
- Are you experiencing symptoms of withdrawal when the effects of alcohol are wearing off, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating racing heart or seizure?
Even when drinking starts to interfere with relationships, school or work, the affected individual might not recognize the severity of their condition. Family members and employers are often the first to notice a problem and suggest intervention.
Beyond the detrimental consequences alcohol misuse can have on one’s emotional and social well-being, the long-term physical effects can be equally severe. Organs commonly damaged by long-term alcohol abuse include the brain, liver, heart, pancreas, kidneys and stomach.
“Over time, heavy drinking can lead to liver damage, cardiovascular disease and multiple types of cancer,” said Reider. “An individual may also experience severe impacts to the brain, including memory loss, nerve damage, insomnia and worsening depression.”
It is also important to note that alcohol misuse can interfere with the body’s immune response to viral and bacterial infections, which can increase susceptibility to respiratory illnesses, such as the COVID-19 virus.
Alternative Ways to Cope
Stress is exacerbated during times of crisis, but the truth is, it’s a natural part of our daily lives as well. Finding healthy ways to cope should be an ongoing priority for all of us.
“Once you begin to integrate healthy coping skills into your life, they tend to stick with you,” said Reider. “Developing these habits can help you not only manage day-to-day challenges, but can mentally prepare you for the unexpected.”
Here are a few simple ways to better cope with stress:
- Disconnect. Take a break from watching the news and scrolling through social media, both of which tend to contain stress-evoking content.
- Practice Self-Care. Be purposeful about the food you’re eating, the movement you’re incorporating into your day, and the amount of sleep you’re getting each night.
- Unwind. Make time for the activities, hobbies and passions that bring you joy.
- Reach Out. Talk to someone about how you’re feeling, whether it be a family member, friend, coworker or clinical professional.
Help is Available
With National Recovery Month less than a month away, it’s a particularly appropriate time to remind individuals that they don’t have to suffer in silence.
“As a nation, we need to put an end to stigmatizing treatment for substance use disorder,” said Reider. “Anyone is susceptible to developing an unhealthy coping mechanism, but by increasing access and availability to treatment, we can help our community members heal and return to living their best lives.”
If you, or someone you love, is battling alcohol or substance misuse, there are a variety of treatment resources available to fit each person’s unique circumstances and preferences, including:
- Virtual Care
- Walk-In Care
- Support Groups & Individual Counseling
- Inpatient Care
- Mental Health & Psychiatric Services
- Community Resources
“I think the most critical thing for anyone struggling with alcohol misuse to remember is that they’re not alone,” added Reider. “The past year and a half has not been normal, and it has not been easy. We have all struggled with finding healthy coping skills, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re here to support you and hope you’ll reach out for the help you need.”
Start the journey to lifelong recovery by contacting ThedaCare Behavioral Health. We’re here to help.