Andrea Carbone, a 51-year-old paralegal who lives in Florida, wasn’t a big drinker for most of her life. But when the pandemic broke out, she was constantly worried about her job, her health, and the safety of her children.
While many people were able to work from home last year, Ms. Carbone had to go to the office. Some mornings, she cried in her car as she drove down deserted streets and highways to her downtown Tampa office, which looked like a ghost town.
As their stress levels increased, so did their alcohol consumption. Before the pandemic, Ms. Carbone had a glass of red wine with dinner most evenings. But by May their intake had increased significantly. “I noticed that I had a glass of wine as soon as I got home, then a glass with dinner, then we sat down to watch TV and I had another glass or two,” she said. “At the end of the night I drank a bottle.”
Ms. Carbone is far from being alone. The widespread fear, frustration, and social isolation associated with the turbulent events of the past year – pandemic, civil unrest, political upheaval – made stress soaring and many people increased their alcohol consumption. Women and parents of young children appear to be particularly badly affected. A statewide survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association in February found that one in four adults said they drank more to manage their stress levels in the past year. This rate has more than doubled for children with children between the ages of 5 and 7.
Another study published in October on the JAMA Network Open found that Americans increased the frequency of their alcohol consumption by 14 percent year over year. However, the same study found a 41 percent increase in the number of days women drank heavily, defined as four or more drinks in a few hours.
“Women have left the labor force disproportionately compared to men. They’ve done a disproportionately large amount of the work around the home, childcare, and child rearing, ”said Michael S. Pollard, lead author of the JAMA study and chief sociologist at RAND Corporation. “So it stands to reason that women would also increase their alcohol consumption disproportionately.”
The mental harm of the past year has resulted in sharp declines in physical health, including widespread weight gain and insomnia. Hospitals across the country have reported an increase in admissions for hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver failure, and other forms of alcohol-related illness. Almost no group was spared.
Driftwood Recovery, an addiction and mental health rehabilitation center in Texas, had so many requests for treatment over the past year that it has a two-month waiting list. Vanessa Kennedy, Driftwood’s director of psychology, said many of her clients are parents who started drinking heavily as they struggled to balance their daily jobs with home schooling and other parental responsibilities.
“They are used to their children going to school happily and having an experienced teacher teaching their children while they go to work and focus on performing well and financially supporting their families,” said Dr. Kennedy. “Her work roles are at odds with her parenting roles, and it has been difficult for her to make room and do these things well.”
Dr. Kennedy has treated a wide variety of patients who turned to excessive drinking in the past year. Some lost their jobs or closed their businesses, leaving them without a daily structure and means to support their families. Others were college students feeling socially separated when they were sent home to attend a virtual school, or older adults who drank because they were depressed about not being able to see loved ones or hugging their grandchildren .
Prior to last year, Gordon Mueller, a retiree who lives in Rochester, NY, rarely consumed more than a drink or two a day. But when the pandemic broke out and the economy and stock market stumbled, Mr Miller was consumed with fear as he followed the news and worried about his retirement account. When Mr. Müller sought refuge with his wife at home, his alcohol consumption rose to seven drinks a day: vodka cocktails in the afternoon, wine with dinner and a whiskey nightcap before bed. “We had no idea whether we would get through this financially, let alone get sick and possibly die,” he said. “It was just a lot of fear and boredom. Those were the two emotions. “
But many people have found new ways to curb their drinking. In December, Mr. Müller reached out to Moderation Management, an online community that helps people who want to drink less but don’t necessarily have to abstain. He participated in Zoom calls with other members and used the organization’s private Facebook group for tips and advice on reducing his alcohol consumption. Then, in January, he decided to give up alcohol for a while to see how he would feel.
“I’m happy to say I haven’t had anything to drink this year and I feel a lot better: I sleep better and can do more,” he said. “The nice thing about this moderation group is that it’s not all or nothing. You can never drink again or you are a failed alcoholic.”
In Tampa, Ms. Carbone began using a popular app called Cutback Coach, which allows people to track their alcohol consumption and set goals and reminders to develop healthier drinking habits. With the app, Ms. Carbone creates a plan of how much she will drink each week. The app tracks her daily intake, sends her notifications of her goals, and lets her know of her progress, including any calories she’s avoided and the money she’s saved from drinking less. She now has at least two “dry” days a week and has cut her alcohol consumption in half.
“When I see the progress I’ve made, I feel good and I move on,” she said. “I sleep much better. I wake up less at night. I wake up feeling less sluggish, less tired. I’ve been going to the gym more regularly while I couldn’t drag myself there before. “
For people looking to drink less, here are some simple tips that might help.
Instead of relying solely on willpower, every Sunday plan to limit your alcohol consumption to a certain amount each day of the week and stick to it. This is a tactic known as pre-bind that is used by the Cutback Coach to help its thousands of members. The idea behind this is that by committing yourself to a plan and limiting your ability to step back later, you increase your chances of success. Some other examples of pre-engagements include choosing not to keep junk food in your house and encouraging you to exercise by scheduling a workout with a friend. Studies show that pre-commitment is an effective way to change behavior.
Find social support
Discuss your plan to drink less with your spouse, friend, or family member. They can hold you accountable and help you find healthier ways to manage your stress. Make a plan to go for a walk with your friend or partner at the end of the day instead of opening a bottle. “You may find that you have a buddy who says, ‘Why don’t we play tennis or do something else to relax after work? “Said Dr. Kennedy.” There are many benefits to trying healthy activities instead of wine. “
Establish rules to slow down drinking. Mary Reid, the executive director of Moderation Management, follows a simple rule that helps her avoid heavy drinking: Every glass of wine she drinks must last at least an hour. “My greatest tool is the timing of my drinks,” she said. “We always tell new members that we have stop buttons, but we just ignore them.” Dr. Driftwood’s Kennedy applies a similar rule. She tells people to alternate every alcoholic drink they have with a glass of water.
Change your routine
Some people drink more out of habit than out of an actual desire for alcohol. Try replacing your usual drink with sparkling water or another beverage. Mr. Miller drank a cocktail every evening while watching the evening news. But when he drank less alcohol, he drank a cup of tea or soft beer while watching the news and found that he only needed one drink to have a sip. “Now I still have a glass in my hand, but it has no alcohol,” he said. “It’s almost like a glass in hand is the habit and not the alcohol.”