Lockdowns were the home makeovers no one asked for, overhauling everyone’s space, no matter how small, into an office, a gym, a theater, and, for many, a bar. Within two days of the first stay-at-home order, online sales of alcohol were up 262% from the previous year. Those who were buying were going big because they were never leaving home. Twenty-four packs of beer, boxes of wine, handles of vodka, as essential as toilet paper for your very own apartment-turned-doomsday bunker-turned-corner dive.
But now it’s time for many of us to cut back. William D.S. Killgore, a psychiatry professor at the University of Arizona, and colleagues just published a study on how many more people are fitting into the hazardous drinking category, in which they are starting to creep into more serious dependence. “I was surprised at how rapidly there was an increase,” said Killgore. “21% in April, but 40% by September.”
That doesn’t mean everyone needs to give up drinking forever. “It’s really too bad that our society has this all or nothing thinking around drinking: you can drink as much as you want unless you have a problem and then you have to go to AA and never drink again,” said Katie Witkiewitz, a psychology professor at the University of New Mexico and director of the Addictive Behaviors and Quantitative Research Lab.
So if you’ve been drinking too much during the the pandemic, you’re not alone. Here are four strategies to help you reel it in.
If you’re going to drink, plan exactly what you are going to drink ahead of time. “If you make a plan before you go, it helps,” said Julia Chester, a behavioral neuroscientist at Purdue who studies the neuroscience of alcohol use. “It shouldn’t be whatever happens, happens.” A single glass of wine before dinner can be delightful if you stop there—and disastrous if you keep going until find the bottom of the bottle.
Once you have a plan in mind, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends counting your drinks. Doing so can help you know when to apply the brakes, something that becomes infinitely harder due to alcohol’s chemical function as a good judgment blocker.
“If you don’t set out to limit your drinking, then you won’t,” said Richard Saitz, professor and chair of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health. Planning and counting can help you cut back on drinking and it can also be diagnostic. “If you do have a hard time cutting back, that could be a symptom of something more serious,” said Saitz.
Start later in the day.
That our homes are now our bars has had another consequence: if you don’t have to head anywhere to get a drink, it’s always right there waiting for you, any time of day.
Needing a drink in the morning to get going should sound an alarm. “By September, 43% [of people surveyed] said they had had a drink in the morning,” said Killgore.
There’s a reason 5 p.m. is canonical cocktail hour—and the declaration that it’s “5 o’clock somewhere” is a problem-drinker cliché. “Have a certain time when you start and not drinking before that time,” said Susan Collins, codirector of the Harm Reduction Research and Treatment (HaRRT) Center at the University of Washington.
Find something else to do.
Many people drink when there’s something missing in their lives, and there’s been a lot missing in all our lives for the last year. In one study of binge drinking during the pandemic, a third of people said they were drinking more simply because they were bored.
“People are drinking because there’s nothing else to do,” said Chester. The answer, then, is to try to find alternatives, something that should become easier as we enter a vaccinated world.
There is also hope here for many who might be worried they’ve been drinking too much during quarantine times. “Generally for most people when the environment shifts their drinking is going to shift,” said Witkiewitz. “For some people there is a risk, alcohol causes brain changes and some of these patterns could persist beyond the pandemic. But what’s really important is that is not going to be for everyone.”
Ask yourself why.
You are not alone if you’ve been using alcohol to hold back the tide of grief and anger and anxiety and depression of the last year. Of people drinking more during the pandemic, nearly two-thirds had depression and forty percent anxiety. A less harsh world, even temporarily, was, as Mick Jagger put it, just a shot away. “In the moment it can feel better, but overall it tends to worsen the conditions,” said Saitz.
Bringing awareness to why you are drinking can help. Collins recommends asking yourself, “what purpose is alcohol serving? What do I get out of this?”
If you’ve been drinking a little too much, what you may need to address, as addiction expert Gabor Maté says, is not why the drinking, but why the pain.