How to Tell If Your "Stress Drinking" Is Turning Dangerous
We asked clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., how to handle drinking during the coronavirus pandemic—and other ways to keep yourself sane during these unprecedented times.
"People should absolutely be more careful right now [with their drinking]," Klapow says. "Unlike other 'disasters' where the damage occurs quickly and then there is the aftermath, we have entered a disaster that is slow moving, invisible for some and growing."
Klapow says that instead of intense anxiety for a short period of time like more common disasters (think: earthquakes), the coronavirus pandemic is bringing about moderate levels of anxiety with spikes at different times for most of us. These spikes can come unexpectedly when new numbers show an increase in cases, new restrictions are placed in your area or someone you know has tested positive for the virus.
"Moderate levels of anxiety coupled with less to do—and limited range of freedom—is a combination for turning to easily accessible means to relax," Klapow says. "Plus, most of us are working from home, so the feasibility of drinking more frequently increases."
Most of us are anxious right now—and our work schedules have been disrupted—which Klapow says often prompts people to significantly increase their alcohol intake. And since our situation doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon, Klapow says we need to be very careful about how we cope with this situation.
Is It Safe to Drink Alcohol Every Day If We Are Staying within the Guidelines for Moderate Drinking?
Our nation's Dietary Guidelines define moderate drinking as having up to one drink a day for women and two for men. The definition refers to the amount consumed on a single day and isn't intended to be averaged over several days at a time. But even if you are following these guidelines, Klapow says this isn't the biggest issue.
"What is critical is if your drinking pattern has changed since the onset of the pandemic," Klapow says. "For example, if you were drinking one drink a week and now are drinking one drink every day, your pattern is potentially dangerous even though you are still within the guidelines. If your alcohol consumption has increased significantly—even within the guidelines—there is reason to be concerned."
Klapow says one of the most important things to ask yourself is why you are drinking more in the first place. If you are drinking to reduce stress and calm your nerves, that's dangerous because alcohol is an unhealthy coping tool. It's even more dangerous if you have a family history of addiction and alcoholism.
"Using alcohol may feel helpful right now but using a recreational drug with dependency properties to cope with stress puts you at risk for developing a drinking habit that can take over your health—and your life." Klapow says.
Can Drinking More Alcohol Than Usual—Even for a Month or Two—Have an Impact on Our Health?
Klapow says if you go from drinking once a week to daily—or even from a couple of drinks on the weekend to several in one sitting—it can move you toward a physically dependent state in just a few weeks. He says this is especially the case if you have a genetic predisposition towards addiction.
Victoria Seaver, M.S., R.D., a senior editor at EatingWell, says that while a glass (or two) of wine at dinner can certainly have a place in a healthy diet, it's not a good way to manage stress—and can do more harm to our mental health than good.
"The coronavirus has certainly amplified stress levels, and we're all seeking ways to help bring those levels down," Seaver says. "While it can be easy to reach for another beverage, relying on alcohol to relax can have negative consequences sooner than you think. Excessive drinking, even if it's for a month or two, can wreck your sleep, send your energy levels plummeting, trigger gut issues and weight gain, and can exacerbate stress levels even more."
Stress levels are bound to decrease once this quarantine is over, but Seaver says that if you're drinking too much now, it may be hard to cut back when life returns to normal.
What Are Some Helpful Ways to Cope with the Stress of Our Current Environment?
Klapow encourages anyone who is "stress drinking" to cope with the current global crisis to come up with two or more ways to reduce stress without alcohol. If you don't come up with ways to cope—or if you disregard them to drink instead—Klapow says you are setting yourself up for greater dependence on alcohol, which can lead to dangerous spirals (especially when you're feeling stressed).
He advises people to try exercise, mindfulness practices, prayer, formal relaxation methods and psychotherapy from a licensed professional mental health provider instead. If you're feeling anxious, stressed or depressed more than usual, Klapow says you are not alone, as many people right now are struggling, and there shouldn't be any shame in seeking help.
"There are mental health professionals all over the country utilizing telehealth methods approved by insurance companies to provide formal treatment," Klapow says. "This isn't just for psychiatric disorders but also for stress and substance use that may be impeding a person's ability to function in a healthy manner." It's worth reaching out to human resources or an employee wellness manager at your company (if you feel comfortable) to see if your insurance or company can cover at least some of the cost.
The Bottom Line
If you already drink alcohol, it can be a healthy part of your diet when consumed in moderation—and for the right reasons. Enjoying a virtual wine night with your friends once a week can be a fun way to make the most of this period of social distancing, but drinking alcohol to cope with stress is not. And if you didn't drink alcohol before the coronavirus outbreak, now is not the time to start using it as "stress relief."
Klapow says your ability to cope with life's stressors should never be dependent on alcohol but rather on your psychological, emotional and behavioral skills. If exercise, meditation, journaling or other coping mechanisms aren't working for you, consider speaking with a licensed mental health professional to help you through this difficult time.