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How To Manage Your Drinking During A Global Health Crisis

Dr Hardeep Kaur Clinical psychologist
2 April 2020

You may have noticed that you have started to drink more as global events have unfolded. It has been an unsettling time, and it’s only natural to try and find ways to cope with stress and make yourself feel better. You may be living alone, in which case it’s natural to feel isolated. Or perhaps you are juggling new challenges and responsibilities such as working from home, or home schooling your children. Whatever your personal situation it’s only natural that you will be facing some new stresses right now. Most of us have never been confronted with a pandemic before: this is new territory and it’s natural to rely more on our coping mechanisms. Maybe you are someone who used to only drink socially, and now it’s started to become a daily habit. Or perhaps you were already struggling with drinking too much but now feel like it’s getting out of control. Alcohol sales in the UK increased by 22% in March 2020, so if you are drinking more then you are not alone.

What is healthy drinking?

Most people drink alcohol socially. The UK government guidelines recommend we drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week (US guidelines recommend women can have up to one drink a day, and men can have up to two drinks). Many of us aren’t that familiar with what this actually means: it’s not a simple as one drink is one unit. Just to give you an idea, six pints of average strength lager (4% ABV) or six medium glasses of wine (175ml, 12%ABV) makes up 14 units. If you regularly drink more than this, then you could be placing your health at risk. Regularly drinking above the safe limits has been linked to heart problems, certain types of cancer and mental health difficulties.


Lockdown pressures and drinking

In the current circumstances most of us are staying home and missing socialising with friends and family. It has also been an incredibly unsettling time, and many of us have had times over the past few weeks when we have felt worried and anxious, or lonely and sad. The pandemic has affected people in different ways too: you may be out of work or facing financial stress; you may be worried about becoming ill, or illness affecting your loved ones; you might be worried about the impact across the world; you may have noticed yourself feeling deprived of the good weather, and not being able to go out and enjoy yourself; or perhaps your relationships are feeling strained as you all adjust to staying home. It’s normal that any tensions with your loved ones can feel amplified right now, and that can be a real source of stress too. It can be hard enough trying to manage alcohol use at the best of times, and if you’ve found yourself drinking more than usual, try not to give yourself such a hard time. The fact you are reading this article means you want to do something about it, which is a step in the right direction.

There are other ways that self-isolation can affect drinking too. If you are working from home it can feel easier to get away with a drink during the day or at lunch. And if you’ve had a heavy night of drinking but are now working from home, you may be less worried about a hangover being noticed by your colleagues or boss. If you aren’t working at the moment it might feel acceptable to relax a little, and to take time to unwind with a drink or two in the day. These may all feel like positives at the beginning, and it can start out as a little treat to enjoy the perks of staying home! However, it can also quickly turn into a daily habit, and before you know it you are drinking above the healthy limit.

How do I know if I need to reduce my drinking?

If you are drinking above the recommended limit, then it’s a good idea to look at your drinking habits and find ways to reduce to the healthy limit. Even if you are drinking within the limit, there may also be other signs that you need to change your drinking habits. Warning signs include:

  • Binge drinking, even if you stay within the weekly limit.
  • Having a drink to manage your emotions e.g. when you are feeling stressed and anxious, sad and lonely or bored and frustrated. This can be a slippery slope, you can start drinking more as you struggle more, and as times goes on you can need more and more to feel better in yourself.
  • Drinking most days, even when you stay within the weekly limit. Perhaps before you were a social drinker, but it has crept up to drinking every day.

Important: If you are drinking heavily every day then there is a chance your body has become physically dependent on alcohol. If this is the case it is very important that you seek medical advice and do not stop drinking abruptly as it can be very dangerous. The common signs of dependence are:

  • Physical withdrawal symptoms e.g. shaking, sweating, nausea.
  • Drinking in the mornings.
  • Struggling to stop after one or two drinks.
  • Feeling anxious, depressed or stressed.
  • Worrying about when you will have your next drink.

What can I do to reduce my drinking?

If you are not physically dependent but are worried that your drinking has started to increase, then have a go at trying some of the following ideas:

  1. Keep an alcohol diary – there are many apps you can use to record your drinking and calculate how many units of alcohol you are currently drinking. You may be surprised!
  2. Plan and decide how much you will drink over the coming week, set yourself a limit e.g. one glass of wine in the evening.
  3. Plan at least 2 or 3 alcohol-free days. Think about what other treats you can have on your alcohol-free days, perhaps plan a video catch up with a friend or doing something you enjoy.
  4. Plan a routine for each day and include things that give you a sense of purpose, and things you enjoy as well as connecting with your friends and family.
  5. Delay drinking to the evenings e.g. drinking after 6pm.
  6. Be aware of binge drinking, it can be harmful to drink your weekly limit of alcohol in one go, it’s better for your health if you can spread it out evenly during the week. For example, planning to have a pint with dinner for four nights a week.
  7. Involve a friend or family member, you are more likely to stick to your plan if you do it with someone else. It can help to have some accountability.
  8. AA and SMART are running online support groups during the lockdown, give them a try. It can help to connect with others who are also trying to reduce drinking.
  9. Start to measure your drinks. When you drink at home it’s easier to end up drinking more than you realise. Use a measuring cup so you know exactly how much you are drinking.
  10. Keep the alcohol out of reach, so it doesn’t tempt you during the day. Maybe keep it in the shed, or out of view at the back of the fridge.
  11. Try and drink lower strength alcohol or use mixers to dilute your drinks.
  12. Keep hydrated by drinking enough water throughout the day.
  13. Slow it down. Before you have an alcoholic drink try and start with a soft drink or water. Or if you have more than one, see if you can alternate your alcoholic drinks with soft drinks.
  14. Try not to stockpile too much alcohol, it’s easy to feel the need to keep more than you need right now. However, it will be tempting to keep drinking if you have plenty of supply.

At the end of each week review how you got on. You could ask yourself what went well? What was most challenging? What you could improve on next week? Take time to congratulate yourself for making changes under such stressful circumstances. Changing a habit can take time, so perseverance is important too: the more you do it, the more it sticks.


Common challenges people experience when they reduce their drinking

Managing cravings and urges

When drinking has become a regular habit, you may notice cravings and urges to drink. Cravings are when you start to feel you want a drink, and these can escalate into urges where you feel you need a drink. Urges can really feel insistent and strong, and it can be difficult to resist an urge. When you follow the urge and have a drink, you will often feel some relief. However, this is often short lived and in the longer term giving into urges makes the drinking habit stronger. Over time you end up needing more and more to quench the urge and feel the relief. This can become a vicious cycle, and it might be one you are already familiar with.

The trick is to learn ways to let the urge pass, without giving in to it. This can be difficult at first, as it means learning to tolerate the distress of the urge. When you experience a craving or an urge, it can be helpful to focus on something else that is important to you. This can help take your attention away from the urge until it passes. For example, asking yourself what else is important in your life? Perhaps doing something that is in line with your values and the kind of person you want to be. You could, for example, speak with a friend or someone you love or do some physical exercise. The good news is that as you practice being with your urges without giving in to them, they start to reduce and become less intense. It can be difficult to begin with, but in the long term it pays off.

Feeling hopeless and unmotivated

If you are struggling to reduce your alcohol to safe limits, try not to give yourself a hard time. Criticising yourself will only make you feel worse, and could even mean you end up drinking more. These are unusual times, and it’s normal to seek comfort and want to feel better in some way. If you are struggling to feel motivated it can help to try the following:

  • Take time to consider the reasons you want to reduce your alcohol use. Why is it important to you? Have a go at writing a list of what you value most in your life, whether it’s your relationship, your children, your health, the work you do, spending time in nature.
  • Consider what impact alcohol has on you being able to live in line with your values. For example, does it get in the way of you being the kind of partner or parent you want to be? Does it get in the way of you being healthy?
  • Write down the benefits of changing your drinking habits? For example, will it give you more energy? Better health? Improve your mood? Leave you more money? Lead to better sleep?

Struggling to manage emotions

People drink for all sorts of reasons, but a common reason for drinking excessively is to manage difficult emotions. Although this might feel helpful at first, you start to depend on alcohol to feel better. Do you recognise drinking to manage your emotions? Some common triggers are:

  • When you are feeling lonely, low or depressed. You might be missing seeing your friends and loved ones, and not able to do the things you usually do to enjoy or socialise.
  • When you are bored and struggling to fill your time.
  • When you want to escape all the stress or numb out from the worrying news around you.
  • When you want to unwind and relax after a stressful day.
  • When you are anxious or worried.
  • When you are feeling frustrated or angry.
  • To help you fall asleep.
  • To cope with tensions and stresses in your relationships or at home.
  • To cope with life stresses like financial or work stress.

As you start to reduce your drinking, it’s also very important to build up healthier ways of coping with your emotions. If you are drinking to suppress difficult feelings, you might like to try expressing them in other ways – writing about how you feel, or talking to people can both be helpful.

It can be helpful to notice emotional triggers which prompt you to drink. For example, is it boredom or anxiety? Once you are aware of your triggers you can look at healthier ways of coping with the underlying difficulty. For example, if you are bored it could help to review your values and what is important to you right now. Alternatively, if you are struggling with anxiety, you could try CBT strategies to help you learn alternative ways of coping.

Some final thoughts

These are difficult times and it is natural to want some comfort and ease in the midst of all the uncertainty. It’s difficult to change drinking habits at the best of times, so be gentle with yourself. Try and make small changes and set achievable and realistic goals. Now, more than ever, we need each other, so try and enlist the help of a friend or a support group to help you along the way. It takes courage and strength to make changes, so don’t be too hard on yourself and see if you can learn to talk to yourself like you would to a good friend.