Drinking is not the only means of lockdown stress reduction
Coco Chanel’s famous quote, “I only drink champagne on two occasions; when I am in love and when I am not”, is pretty reflective of how we use alcohol in western society. We drink to celebrate and commiserate, when we are happy or sad, and when we are social or lonely.
It is no surprise, then, that there are concerns that alcohol consumption has increased as a result of the pandemic, with stress, boredom and accessibility being key factors in the upsurge. If you have been drinking more during the pandemic, you are not alone. Current data shows increased spending on alcohol and increased consumption during the lockdowns.
Let’s start with the simple explanations. Many people are now more home-based, with less travel time and less to do generally (with many hobbies now restricted or unavailable). One reason why people might be drinking more is that it is, literally, something to do. Moreover, a glass of wine might help distinguish your work lounge from your social lounge, it might signify the end of the work day, or give you entertainment for the evening. For some working from home, it might even be easier to sneak a drink earlier in the day, whilst still working.
At the more concerning end, it is perhaps a fairly predictable trajectory that the pandemic leads to stress, which leads to emotional challenges; which in turn, leads to alcohol as a coping strategy. We believe that those whose emotional system is over firing due to trauma and stress are particularly vulnerable to addiction, as they desperately try to manage their aroused limbic (emotion) system.
Alcohol functions to slow down the central nervous system, creating feelings of relaxation. It also reduces inhibition, judgment, and memory. Because of these qualities, alcohol becomes a way to temporarily reduce stress and numb difficult feelings. If the drinking gods happen to be on your side, you may buy yourself some time away from those unpleasant feelings. However, as alcohol is a depressant, there is often not a guaranteed positive outcome of drinking to cope. Certainly, we know it is bad for your physical health, and causes more problems emotionally as use becomes chronic.
Understandably, psychologists aren’t too keen on the idea of using alcohol to cope with stress. Drinking to reduce negative feelings runs a higher risk of addiction and problematic drinking than other reasons for use. However, it isn’t awful if used occasionally and moderately. Healthier people tend to have a range of coping strategies, and alcohol might be just one of them. You wouldn’t have a toolbox and fill it with only hammers, right?
Often then the solution is not merely in reducing the bad habits we use to cope; in this case drinking (however, it could be anything: self-harm, smoking, binge eating etc) but recognising that, we need to also, at the same time, add in replacement coping strategies and broaden our options; add in a spanner or a screwdriver.
Let’s be real, we know that yoga and meditation are far better for us, but for the most part we aren’t craving a sun salutation sequence on a Friday afternoon. Equally, there’s a reason we celebrate birthdays with cake and not a stick of celery! We are societally and physically cued and reinforced to prefer some options over others. That said, adding in alternative ways of coping is always a good thing. The more flexible and creative your methods of soothing and redirecting, the more effective you become at coping with stress.
If you are concerned about your drinking, it may be helpful to keep a log of your alcohol intake, notice what motivates you to drink, and any factors that moderate your drinking. Notice the consequences of drinking and whether they are intended or not.
You might want to try a harm-reduction approach by making some small changes to your drinking; start drinking later in the evening, limit yourself at the outset (perhaps only store a limited amount), consider alternating with water, or drinking diluted alcohol or drinks with a lower alcohol content. You can also plan days of abstinence.
If you are drinking out of boredom or comfort, consider alternative treats or behaviours that offer a similar but less damaging reward. Practise adding in alternative forms of mood regulation like massages, relaxation, yoga, watching comedy or singing along to your favourite tunes.
Exercise is awesome for mood and I will tell you more about this in the future. If you feel you require external support., contact your GP, Solstice or BARC for guidance on the options available. You can also look at www.aa.bm for resources.
• Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor