When Does Drinking To Relax Become A Bad Habit?

The pandemic has created the perfect storm for the increased use of alcohol: fear, isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty create vicious cycles of drinking, loneliness, and shame. During the first few months of the pandemic, I worried about the state of my sobriety. I’ve been in recovery long enough to know how to navigate stress and cravings, but when my support systems were taken away or drastically changed because of COVID-19, I struggled to find coping mechanisms that would relieve some of the stress.

I also saw the reports that showed the increased alcohol sales in the early days of the pandemic compared to previous years. People weren’t just stocking up on toilet paper and flour; they were buying booze as if it was just as necessary to survive quarantine. I was worried about my addict friends. I’m still worried about my friends in sobriety, and have watched a few of them fall and pick themselves up. But I’m also worried about others for whom “drinking to take the edge off” has become a dangerous bad habit.

One study showed that not only has drinking frequency increased during the pandemic, but the amount consumed per day increased too. Another finding that is troubling (but not surprising) to me is that women reported a 41% increase in alcohol consumption. This is a dangerous statistic because women — specifically mothers — have already used alcohol as a coping mechanism, and our culture has made it socially acceptable. Women and mothers have been asked to carry much of the load during this pandemic, and many are coping by drinking. But when is it time to recognize a coping mechanism as dangerous and no longer helpful?

Dr. Claire Nicogossian Psy. D, Psychologist, Clinical Assistant Professor, and author of the book, “Mama, You Are Enough: How to Create Calm, Joy and Confidence Within the Chaos of Motherhood,” tells Scary Mommy, “Adults who may never have identified as having a problem with alcohol are using alcohol more than ever in their life as a way to cope with stress and the incredible challenges of this pandemic.” She says there are signs and questions folks can ask themselves to determine if their drinking has become problematic.

Craving alcohol, drinking more than you intended, making excuses for drinking, hiding the amount you are consuming, and feeling guilt, shame, and hopelessness during and after you drink are signs Dr. Nicogossian wants people to recognize as red flags of problem drinking. It’s also important to be honest with yourself about why you are drinking. If you drink because it’s your only coping mechanism to deal with stress, because you are bored, or need to escape, then it’s best to reach out to a medical professional for help.

In an interview with NPR, Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, a researcher National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, worries about that ease with which people turn to alcohol as a way to unwind. The NIAAA reports that 88,000 Americans die each year from alcohol related deaths. Dr. Leggio reminds us that 9/11 and Katrina were other recent traumatic events that were catalysts for survivors to become dependent on alcohol because of stress. He knows that patterns of disordered drinking and addiction that have started because of the pandemic will continue well after its conclusion. And because alcohol use can cause respiratory problems, heavy drinkers are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Dr. Nicogossian tells Scary Mommy that the alcohol itself isn’t the problem; it’s the reasons why people drink and the amount consumed that can be problematic. She suggests that a better understanding of different types of coping will help people understand their relationship with alcohol. Active coping is a direct approach to reducing stress and enhancing well-being. Exercise, getting enough sleep, and staying socially connected are examples of active coping. Passive coping, like watching TV or scrolling social media, can calm and distract us but may not lead to improved health or decreased levels of stress. Binging alcohol or actively drinking even when you know you have a problem are coping mechanisms that create avoidance and self-harm. While a drink with a friend can be a responsible and active boost in mental health and mood, drinking out of habit and as a way to numb emotions is not healthy.

The length and intensity of the pandemic combined with the added stigma of addiction yet socially accepted use of alcohol is too much to balance most days. I can’t define other people’s relationship with alcohol, but I know that not all drinking habits are signs of addiction. I also know drinking can be toxic for folks who aren’t addicts. I am also proof that addicts can be high functioning and seen as successful while slowly killing themselves with secrets. The best advice I can give is to be honest with yourself. If you are wondering if you drink too much or have a problem with alcohol, then it’s safe to assume you are worried about it enough to make changes. And if someone points out that you may have a toxic relationship with booze, it’s safe to assume they love you and want what’s best for you.

Please reach out and get support. A friend, therapist, or doctor can be a great place to turn. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers 24/7, 365 days of the year confidential and free services in Spanish and English. 1-800-662-HELP (4357). You aren’t alone.

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