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Knocking back too many 'quarantinis'? How to keep drinking in check

New research shows that Americans are drinking more during the pandemic. Here's why that's troubling — and what experts suggest to avoid overdoing it.
Too much alcohol can lead to feelings of depression, anger, hopelessness and powerlessness which is a real concern at a time when many families are cooped up together under stressful circumstances.
Too much alcohol can lead to feelings of depression, anger, hopelessness and powerlessness which is a real concern at a time when many families are cooped up together under stressful circumstances.Getty Images

Have you found yourself drinking more during the pandemic? If the answer is "Cheers," you're not alone. Adults across the country report imbibing 14% more often in spring 2020 than the previous spring, according to a recent report in JAMA Network Open that focused on a survey of more than 1,500 people.

This is no surprise, considering that when hand sanitizer and toilet paper were flying off the shelves in March, so too was alcohol. As more people began sheltering in their homes to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, retail alcohol sales in the U.S. started to rise along with sales of cleaning products, TP, and food, showing just how important our drinking rituals are even (and maybe especially) in a crisis.

But even before the pandemic started, alcohol-related deaths were already on the rise in the U.S., according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that from 2006 to 2018, deaths from alcohol use increased by 43%. Researchers noted that though the rates each year were higher for men than women, the increases in the rates among women were more dramatic, especially for those living in rural areas. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that more than 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually.

COVID-19’s effect on alcohol sales

Compared with March 2019, retail sales of alcohol saw a big spike across all categories from wine and spirits to beer and hard cider, according to Nielsen, a global marketing research firm based in New York City.

At that point, 46 states had either closed or limited the operations of restaurants and bars. And in many of the states that enacted sweeping closures of nonessential businesses, liquor stores — along with grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals — were designated “essential” and permitted to stay open.

While the spike in sales was good for the alcohol industry (which took a big hit in its on-premise sector), the stockpiling of booze might not have been good for everybody. As we enter cold and flu season and gear up for a possible second wave of the coronavirus, it's important to remember that while alcohol may help take the edge off pandemic-related stress and anxiety, it can also be easy to overdo it.

The problem with alcohol and catastrophic events

Making the most of time you're spending at home to avoid contracting the virus means making an effort to maintain some normalcy — and pleasure. If you’re someone who looks forward to a little tipple at the end of the day, it’s reasonable to stock up (the fewer trips to the store, the better). But Wendy McClary, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Vermont and Massachusetts, says that the rise in alcohol sales is something to watch very carefully.

It can be tempting to self-medicate with alcohol. “In small quantities,” says McClary, “alcohol can help reduce anxiety, but it’s mainly a depressant.” With the threat of the deadly coronavirus and all the havoc it’s wreaking, people are feeling anxious. Their typical routines have also been disrupted. This, she says, can create a scenario where the usual rules no longer apply.

Under normal circumstances, says McClary, “most adults who drink are able to do so within responsible limits.” But studies show that catastrophic events can trigger increased substance use. “In the aftermath of 9/11,” she explains, “there was significantly increased use of alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes among New York City residents. In particular, there was a major increase of use in individuals — such as social drinkers — who’d used the substances previously.”

Excessive drinking can also weaken your immune response, which can increase your risk for respiratory illnesses and other conditions, says Samantha Cassetty, a New York City-based registered dietitian. “Many people are surprised to learn that heavy drinking is considered eight drinks per week for women and 15 drinks for men.”

Too much alcohol can lead to feelings of depression, anger, hopelessness and powerlessness — and domestic violence, which McClary says is a real concern at a time when many families are cooped up together under stressful circumstances. Another reason to moderate drinking, she says, is that “our children are watching every move we make — and they’re learning about what it means to interact with the world as adults by our example.”

How to keep drinking in check as the pandemic wears on

“As long as you’re healthy,” says Cassetty, “it’s OK to have a drink a day for women or two for men.” Here are five ways to enjoy all those virtual happy hours — without overdoing it.

1. Set limits on how much you’re drinking

The serving size for a glass of wine is 5 ounces, says Cassetty. But if you’re using a large wine glass, you could be pouring much more than that. “So even if you’re sticking with one glass,” she says, “you might be having nearly two drinks.”

2. Limit sugary cocktails

“We’ve seen that people with underlying conditions, like heart disease and diabetes, are at greater risk for serious illness from COVID-19,” says Cassetty. “Excess added sugar in the diet has been linked with these conditions, along with other things, like inadequate sleep, which also impacts your immune functioning.” Keep it simple and opt for a “quarantini” or spritz over cocktails made with sugary mixers or simple syrups.

3. Consider low- or no-alcohol drinks

Add lower ABV wines (12% or 13% max), spritzes and spirit-free cocktails into your drinks rotation. If you’re having trouble maintaining alcohol limits, says Cassetty, it may help to avoid activities that involve drinking (including mocktails, which mimic drinking), and focus on self-care strategies, like meditation or a hobby, instead.

4. Be careful about relaxing your own rules

“Increased use tends to begin with relaxing the typical ‘rules’ around alcohol,” says McClary. “The challenge is to be mindful of what the usual rules would’ve been, and to try to stick with them.” If you typically have a glass of wine with dinner, it makes sense to stick with that — don’t go for a second glass. Similarly, she says, “if you never would’ve previously considered drinking before 5 p.m., don't start now.”

5. Adjust your focus

Even if the cocktail you made is a masterpiece, the real focus of the evening, says McClary, should be on the people who are there with you and the personal connections you’re making. There are many downsides to the way the pandemic is affecting our lives. One upside, she says, is more time to reconnect with family and friends, whether remotely or in person. “We’ll all benefit from connecting with others.”

As we continue to try to protect ourselves from catching COVID-19, ongoing individual, partnership and parental issues will become more challenging for many, says McClary. If you’re struggling to cope, reach out to a licensed therapist. Many are conducting remote sessions over the phone or through secure video chats. Check with your insurance company to see what the current guidelines are for your policy. Therapy can be a valuable tool for managing your concerns about the coronavirus, but just as importantly, says Cassetty, “it’ll help you down the line, too.”