Increased alcohol consumption during COVID-19 lockdown?
We all saw those pictures in the media during the early panic buying days of COVID-19, where people crowded the aisles of Dan Murphy’s piling their trolleys with boxes of alcohol. Many of my clients have sat across from me in the last few months stating that their alcohol consumption had increased, sometimes dramatically. A few attempt to normalise it by saying, “But everyone is doing it”, seeing it as a temporary adaptation to more time in the house, maybe increased stress, and the difficult emotions that come with these times. So, it’s no wonder that experts have reported a sudden, dramatic rise in alcohol use. So, is this a problem? And more importantly, what to do if you have decided that your increased drinking is problematic? Most importantly, “just say no,” doesn’t work for everyone. So, here are a few simple strategies to help you put in some boundaries around drinking so you don’t emerge from lockdown with a serious problem: Make Some Rules. There’s no doubt that regular routines have taken a hit with the virus shutdown. Make some clear, rational choices about how much you’re going to consume, how often, and with whom you want to drink. (e.g., Drinking is allowed after 6:00PM, you can drink three times a week, you can only drink with people you drank with before). You might not follow the rules all the time, but even if you use them as a broad guidelines, there’s now some benchmarks to assess what’s working for you, and what you might want to change.
Notice the Time. Now that some people are working more flexible schedules, it’s easy to not even notice what time it is when the urge to drink hits, or a request to have a drink with someone comes into your inbox. Think about your habits prior to the lockdown. If you were pretty much satisfied with your drinking pattern then, now isn’t the time to start making significant adjustments (e.g, day drinking).
Make Self-Monitoring a Habit. You can do this by simply writing down each drink, what time it was, and how much you consumed. You could use one of a number of self-monitoring apps that are out there. The point is not to be self-critical, but simply to be self-aware. It’s important to know what your usual pattern is if you want to be able to change it.
Schedule Activities that are Incompatible with Drinking. Many people find strenuous exercise, like running, a great way to release built up tension. You could also go for a long walk or bike ride. Meet up with a friend and go for a long walk.
Learn to "Surf the Urge.” The idea of surfing the urge (to do anything) comes from mindfulness practice. When you first feel the wish to drink, check the time, maybe make a note of it if you like. Then just don’t do anything. Or if it’s easier, move around, get a drink of water, or just distract yourself for a while. The impulse will actually go away. As soon as you notice that you forgot about drinking, check the time. Was it one minute, or ten? This is your time frame for controlling yourself. You can say to yourself, “If I can wait ten minutes, this urge to use will go away.” If the urge comes back, do it again. You’re trying to teach yourself, “This urge will go away when I don't give into it.”
Most importantly, remember the Core Values of Harm Reduction:
Understanding. Understand your choices and the things you have done in your life so far. Knowing what leads you to drink is essential to figuring out what you need to do about it.
Acceptance. Accept yourself and your choices and receive acceptance from others. Appreciate that you are doing your best right now, and look for the strengths in your behaviour rather than tearing yourself down.
Compassion. Guilt and Shame can be quite paralysing, and you must forgive yourself and have self-compassion in order to move forward on your journey to balance and moderation.
Kindness. Be kind to yourself and surround yourself (even virtually) with people who are kind to you.
Connection. Attachment (to drinking) can be replaced by, or exist alongside, connection to other people.
Freedom to choose. Always remember that you have autonomy—the right and the opportunity to have a hand in the direction of your life.
If you want to check where your consumption is at, a widely validated tool is the AUDIT screening tool online. If you’re interested in getting some anonymous online support to manage your drinking, Hello Sunday Morning offers a free online community of thousands of people on the same path. You can connect and chat with others who are actively attempting to change their alcohol consumption. Of course you can always talk to a GP knowledgeable about substance use issues or see a Psychologist or counsellor with training and experience in working with problematic drinking behaviour.