Coping With Alcohol Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Graham Reynolds, Ph.D.
Many of us are adjusting to changes in our daily lives as the Coronavirus pandemic continues across the world. Rates of depression and anxiety have increased, and identifying helpful coping strategies has been challenging. One maladaptive strategy is drinking alcohol in order to cope with the stress of everyday life. While drinking may provide short-term relief from anxiety or sadness, it can create problems that impact daily functioning in the long run.
Here are some tips for ensuring healthy drinking habits during the pandemic:
Examine the Pros and Cons
It is important to acknowledge that alcohol use does have some benefits, though it is also important to take all of the pros and cons into consideration. The way to do this effectively is to look at both the pros and cons of drinking alcohol as well as the pros and cons of not drinking alcohol. This can help us activate our logical thinking and help prevent what might otherwise be an emotion driven decision to drink.
Know the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Use Problems
Some indications that drinking or other substance use has become a problem include:
- Using larger amounts than intended
- Having a persistent desire to cut down, without being successful
- Continued use despite problems in relationships
- Activities are given up because of use
- Continued use despite physical or psychological issues
- Craving or a strong desire to use substances
- Repeatedly being unable to carry out major obligations due to substance use
Identify Reasons for Reducing or Eliminating Drinking
If drinking has become an issue in your life or you are looking to change your drinking habits, it can be helpful to identify reasons why you would want to change. If you are concerned about your health, research from the WHO indicates that heavy alcohol consumption weakens the immune system and increases the risk of severe complications associated with COVID-19. If you are finding alcohol is creating problems in your relationships, turn your attention to why these relationships are important or meaningful to you.
Take Care of Vulnerabilities to Emotions
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the PLEASE skill encourages taking care of our bodies as a way to take care of our minds. Alcohol can lower our resistance to negative emotions, and therefore make us more prone to feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger. Along with limiting mood- altering substances, having a balanced diet and getting enough sleep and exercise further reduce our risk for painful emotions.
Identify What Alcohol Does for You and Find a Replacement Behavior
One strategy that can be helpful to change your drinking habits is to understand the function of the behavior. Once you understand the triggers to wanting to drink, you can work to address urges in more effective ways. For example, if drinking is an attempt to escape and “check out,” try some distractions like reading, watching television, or other activities that can engage your attention. If alcohol use is a social function (e.g., videoconference happy hours), try an online game or other group activity instead. While drinking may seem to work in the short term, it is at the expense of increasing problems down the line.
Build Skills to Say “No”
If alcohol use typically occurs in a social setting, such as the aforementioned videoconference happy hours, you may feel pressure to participate and have a drink even if you don’t want one. In DBT, the interpersonal effectiveness skills can help you practice being assertive by rehearsing a short and sweet response to prompts to drink while helping you be fair to yourself and your values. One helpful skill is the DEAR MAN skill, which suggests you first describe the situation, then express what you think or how you feel, assert that you do not want to drink, and finally preemptively reinforce the person by telling them why they should support you in not drinking. Alternatively, confidently and quickly saying “No, thank you” to a drink offer can reduce the likelihood that you will hesitate and give in.
Graham Reynolds, Ph.D., practices as a full-time clinician at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and specializes in working with adolescents and adults struggling with anxiety, OCD, social phobia, PTSD, personality disorders, depression, and mood disorders. Dr. Reynolds approaches treatment with an emphasis on creating meaning and collaborates with clients to help them live a valued life while helping to foster change in problematic behaviors.