‘Drinking Spirits to Lift Spirits’ May Hold Appeal Amid COVID-19 Stress, but Don’t Overdo, Cautions Baylor University Expert on Substance Abuse
Physical distancing and less access to liquor could be a ‘great jumping-off point’ for individuals seeking recovery from addictions, researcher says
WACO, Texas (March 31, 2020) – Drinking alcoholic beverages may be more appealing amid unease about the coronavirus, as people deal with shelter-at-home orders, fears about the economy and boredom, says a Baylor University researcher who studies alcohol use and misuse.
But with regulations providing less access to alcohol, this may be a good time for individuals struggling with alcohol use to begin recovery and for others to guard against over-relying on alcohol or other substances.
When bars and restaurants began closing — other than for such options as pickup, delivery or drive-through — liquor stores saw a surge in business, according to news reports. But Pennsylvania closed its liquor stores — some people defied stay-at-home orders and drove to liquor stores in neighboring states — and New Hampshire recently closed some of its liquor stores, according to reports. Other states who deemed the businesses “essential” also may take another look at the issue.
How to grapple with the risks of substance use and misuse during this stressful time is the subject of this Q&A with Sara Dolan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, who has done extensive research on substance use and misuse.
Q: There are memes — some of them humorous — going around about heavy alcohol use during quarantine. Why might people be drinking more than usual?
DOLAN: People have many different motivations for drinking, and I think self-isolation amplifies some of those. First, people drink to feel good. For some, being out of the normal work routine may feel like a time to let loose. People also drink to feel less bad. It would be normal to feel out of sorts now that we are social distancing. It also would be normal to feel some boredom, and certainly we feel anxiety and uneasiness about our current circumstances. Alcohol may be seen by some as a way to cope with those negative feelings.
Q: How might the “new normal” be especially hard for alcoholics? Could this be a time to begin recovery? Some may be social distancing from drinking buddies, although that wouldn’t stop drinking alone.
DOLAN: A forced lack of access to alcohol through social distancing and bars being closed can be a great jumping-off point for someone to begin recovery, especially when people are physically distancing from the people they drink or use with. But this can be an especially tough time for people because they may not be able to cope with all the new stressors, especially if they don’t have access to their typical means of coping. For example, for someone who usually relies on friends and family for support, social distancing can cause more stress. And loneliness is especially difficult when it is stacked on top of economic, illness and other anxieties we are experiencing. It is important for us to reach out, from a distance, to family and friends and other resources to help us cope positively so we don’t turn to drinking or other drug use to help us cope.
I worry about people who are very heavy drinkers who suddenly stop drinking. Alcohol withdrawal, which can happen when a very heavy drinker stops drinking suddenly, can be very dangerous. Symptoms include anxiety, shakiness, sweatiness, headaches, nausea and even hallucinations – seeing and hearing things others don’t see or hear — and seizures. If someone who usually drinks very heavily and suddenly stops drinking experiences these symptoms, immediate medical attention is necessary.
Q: What strategies would you suggest as far as dealing with heavy drinking during this time – both for drinkers and for those who love them?
DOLAN: We really all need to be compassionate toward one another, regardless of our individual struggles. This is a difficult time for everyone – it is normal during a crisis like this to feel anxious and even depressed. Support is very important, both for those who are struggling and for those who seem like they are doing fine. This support can take a lot of different forms, from offering an ear to listen to offering specific strategies, such as mutual recovery groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous, offered online) and other coping resources, like apps.
Here is a list of just a few of the apps that may help people cope with stress:
Q: What about groups like Alcoholics Anonymous during this time, who because of guidelines against large gatherings may miss in-person support?
DOLAN: There are quite a few digital resources to support recovery from alcohol and substance abuse. Here are just a few:
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
DOLAN: We know that during times of crisis, rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal behaviors increase, and those feelings and behaviors can be exacerbated by heavier alcohol or drug use. Let’s do all that we can to care for those around us.
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