Health Matters 4/23: Pandemic Stress Leading People to Turn to Alcohol

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By Nicole Orro, LPC, LCADC

Alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have increased as more people have turned to alcohol to cope with the stress and anxiety associated with the virus, according to recent surveys.

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And while with rising vaccination rates there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, feelings of stress and anxiety will likely linger for some time even after life returns to a post-pandemic normal.

This could mean that people will continue to view alcohol as a means to cope.

Drinking, however, is not a healthy coping mechanism. Using alcohol to deal with stress could ultimately lead to dependence, harm your health, and have a significant impact on many aspects of your life.

If you or a loved one is struggling to deal with the mental health impact of COVID-19, help is available.

Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health provides specialized treatment programs for people of all ages who are experiencing mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or a combination of both.

Stress and COVID-19

There is little question that almost everyone has experienced some degree of pandemic-related stress over the past year.

People have feared contracting the virus and have worried about others getting sick.

Social distancing measures have left both adults and children unable to connect in person with family and friends, which has led to feelings of isolation.

Parents have felt overwhelmed juggling work from home and virtual schooling for their kids.

Feelings of loss and grief have been pervasive and a sense of uncertainty about what the future holds has persisted each day.

The stress is real, and it has real consequences.

As the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, when stress is overwhelming it can cause:
• Feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness or frustration.
• Changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests.
• Difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
• Difficulty sleeping or nightmares.
• Physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems and skin rashes.
• Worsening of chronic health problems.
• Worsening of mental health conditions.
• Increased use of tobacco, alcohol and other substances.

Increase in Alcohol Use

While it is still too early to report definitively, early research suggests that alcohol use has increased in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The American Psychological Association released a survey last month that found that nearly 1 in 4 adults (23%) reported drinking more to deal with their stress.

This percentage jumps to more than half of adults (52%) who are parents with young children between 5 and 7 years old.

Further, a separate study published in December in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that nearly two-thirds of the study participants reported that their drinking had increased compared to their consumption prior to COVID-19.

Moreover, more than a third of respondents reported engaging in binge drinking and 7% reported engaging in extreme binge drinking. Most (45%) attributed their alcohol use to increased stress.

Warning Signs

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women, on days when alcohol is consumed.

However, even prior to the pandemic, 2 in 3 adult drinkers reported drinking above moderate levels at least once a month.

While not everyone who drinks will develop a problem, warning signs of a disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, can include:

• Drinking more or longer than you intended.
• Wanting or trying to stop drinking, but are unable.
• Drinking – or being sick from drinking – interfering with taking care of your home or family and causing problems at work or school.
• Continuing to drink even though it makes you feel depressed or anxious.
• Experiencing cravings or strong urges to drink.
• Experiencing withdrawal symptoms – trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, restlessness, nausea or sweating – as the effects of alcohol wear off.

If you are concerned about your drinking or are feeling overwhelmed by stress, talk with your doctor or seek help from a mental health professional.

Princeton House Behavioral Health offers intensive outpatient programs to help adults, young adults, and adolescents who struggle with substance abuse and other mental health conditions. Treatment includes a comprehensive evaluation by a board certified psychiatrist; evidence-based treatment; medication evaluation and management as needed; group and individual therapy; family education groups; and expressive therapies like art and music.

Healthy Coping Tips

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into its second year, it is only natural to feel some level of stress and anxiety. Rather than using alcohol to help manage those feelings, the CDC offers the following healthy coping tips:

• Take breaks from watching, reading or listening to news stories, including those on social media. It’s good to be informed, but hearing about the pandemic constantly can be upsetting. Consider limiting news to just a couple times a day and disconnecting from phone, TV and computer screens for a while.

• Take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch or meditate. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals. Exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep. Continue with routine preventive measures (such as vaccinations, cancer screenings, etc.) as recommended by your healthcare provider. Get a COVID-19 vaccine, when available.

• Make time to unwind. Try to do activities you enjoy and that are different from your work or parenting responsibilities.

• Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.

• Connect with local community – or faith-based organizations. While social distancing measures are in place, try connecting online, through social media, or by phone or mail.

To learn more about Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, visit www.princetonhouse.org or call 800-437-1610.

Nicole Orro, LPC, LCADC, is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor. She is the director of Outpatient Addiction Services at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health.

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