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Drinking and the Pandemic

Many people drink more when they are going through a stressful situation. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a lot of stress, uncertainty, loss, and isolation. With this stress, pandemic alcohol use increased in adults over age 30 by 14%, with a 41% increase in women heavily drinking, according to a September 2020 RAND Corporation study. Research in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that alcohol-related deaths increased by 25% during the first year of the pandemic. Pandemic strain and loss of addiction services also hurt those already coping with addictions, spiking relapse and overdose rates.

How Booze Changes Your Brain

When we are under stress, the brain can find ways to get us to drink more. Weekend drinking may have become a daily drink, one drink a night may have turned into three, or the drinks you pour yourself may have gotten bigger. We don’t always make these decisions consciously—scientists have learned that alcohol is able to change neurons in the brain in a way that makes the brain want to drink more alcohol, and the more you drink over time, the greater these changes become. In fact, research shows that people who begin drinking before the age of 15 are at an increased risk for developing AUD later in life.

What Makes Cutting Back So Hard?

When we drink, the balance of chemicals in the brain changes. As the effect of alcohol wears off, the brain has to rebalance the chemicals in the brain, creating cravings for more alcohol, which might be one of the reasons it is hard to stop drinking once you have had a drink. Over time, these pathways become stronger and stronger, making cravings more and more difficult to resist.

Tricks for Cutting Back

If the pandemic has affected how much you drink, now might be a good time to learn ways to cut back. Small steps can make cutting back seem less overwhelming—and move drinking into a healthier range. 

Making these small changes could make a big difference:

  • Head to bed. Evenings can be a time people reach for a drink when they are tired, sitting on their couch, watching TV and trying to turn off their minds. Heading to bed early can remove the temptation and start your next day better rested.
  • Replace alcohol with another fun beverage. Sometimes people drink alcoholic beverages just because they are looking for a treat. Instead of a cocktail, try something non-alcoholic such as herbal tea, sparkling water with lemon and mint or a mocktail.
  • Alcohol-free socializing. Connect with a supportive friend over a walk or exercise class, rather than drinks.
  • Save drinking for certain special days each week. 
  • Use therapy, counseling or motivational apps. Therapists and counselors work on mental health, coping skills, and goals. Drink-tracking apps such as Cutback Coach allow you to monitor your alcohol use and offer positive reinforcement to change.

Talk to your doctor. You might benefit from FDA-approved medications, such as naltrexone, that a primary care provider can prescribe to help you cut back alcohol intake and curb cravings.

Four Questions to Ask Yourself

Am I drinking more than I did before the pandemic started?
Why and when do I drink?
What are the negative impacts when I drink?
How would life be better if I cut back?