On Monday, after an executive order closed all bars, restaurants, and most other public gathering places in Minnesota to help combat COVID-19, a friend messaged me, “I spent $186 to hoard booze.”
Liquor stores actually weren’t included on the list of places that were mandated to close, but I understood the impulse. “Got as much High Life as I could carry on my bike, and a bottle of Jameson,” I texted my partner later that evening. “No food, tho.”
If you've been drinking more as you deal with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic—or are seeing your friends make more jokes than usual about their beer intake—you're not the only one. Practicing social distancing, working from home, and living in a world where you’re being told to avoid movie theaters, gyms, restaurants, and just about every other time-filling and actually enjoyable activity leaves a lot of leftover hours in the day. Hours you can easily fill with between one and 12 beers.
The desire to get drunk during a deadly pandemic is fairly reasonable. Kenneth Skale, president of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, said the urge to have a drink (or a few) right now is “totally normal.”
“Think about what people are going through,” he said. “There’s a ton of uncertainty, financial pressure—no one knows how this thing is going to turn out.”
Skale said people typically use substances in one of two ways: as a stand-in for relationships, or to numb themselves from the feelings they’re experiencing. “Whenever we feel threatened, [most of us] have the urge to get closer to others," Skale said. "Or, we have the urge to check out and not be with that feeling.” Since connecting with loved ones (and/or… anyone else) isn’t an option right now in a physical sense, it makes sense that people would turn to alcohol to replace those connections, and to feel less afraid.
Even though drinking more than usual during an unprecedented-feeling, sad, lonely, and boring time like this one is reasonable, it’s also…. maybe not great. “The main problem is, drinking works,” said clinical psychologist Ryan Howes. “It does take away some of the stress and help you relax—while you’re drinking.”
But those soothing effects of drinking are temporary and maybe bad in the long run, or even as soon as you're sober again. “When you wake up the next morning, you’re faced with a hangover, the same stress you were trying to avoid, and a diminished capacity to handle that stress,” Howes said. Think about how hard it is to complete a basic task or cope with an annoying roommate when you’re hungover on a normal day.
Drinking a lot is also not the best idea if you’re trying to avoid getting sick. “Alcohol tends to suppress your immune system,” said George F. Koob, a doctor of behavioral psychology and the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. During a pandemic, it might not be the best way to kill time. “If you are indeed vulnerable to virus and infection," Koob said, "It’s probably not a good idea to add [excessive drinking] in.” (And, for the record, right now everyone is vulnerable and needs to be extra careful.)
So—what is excessive drinking, in this context? How much should you really be drinking (or doing drugs) right now?
Skale said that, while it’s objectively not healthy to get drunk, he’s not saying you shouldn’t ever do it. There’s no hard or fast rule, but it’s a good idea to self-moderate. Pay attention to whether your intake is gradually escalating (which often happens, and can be harder to be aware of when you're isolated and stressed out). It might be a good idea to start noting how many drinks you’re consuming daily in your planner or calendar app.
If you’ve noticed an uptick in your alcohol use recently, think about what your specific motivation is before you crack open another 3 p.m. beer. If you’re using substances to augment a good time—like drinking and FaceTiming friends—or improve the occasional rough moment, experts say that’s probably OK. If you’re trying to be avoidant, drinking because of anxiety or depression, or drinking heavily and regularly without thinking about why, slow down. “If [drinking is] used to fix a moment, that’s a problem,” Skale said. “The feelings are not the problem. The feelings are an alert that something’s wrong.”
The move here is to listen to the feelings motivating the drinking you’re trying to drown them out with (sorry!) and then respond to them with appropriate, non-drinking activities. As annoying as it may be to be told to do a self-improvement (or home-improvement) project when you’d rather be drinking, every single expert suggested this.
For instance, are you actually quite lonely? Make a point to call a few friends. Bored? Read a book, cook a meal, or learn something. Depressed? See if your therapist is taking phone or video appointments—many are, even if that's not a part of their normal practice. If you don’t have a therapist or can’t afford one, Howes recommended journaling “to express and tame feelings so they no longer feel so overwhelming.”
“I’ve been trying to think about the upside of self-isolating, and it seems like one major benefit is … saying, ‘Someday I’m going to tackle [name the task or chore],” Howes said. “Maybe it’s clearing out your closet, or scanning your photos, or going through the box of childhood stuff, or fixing that damn squeaky door.” The projects can be fairly small, too—crossing one dumb thing off your to-do list can really help break an, “Ahhh, I don’t know what to do with myself, so I guess I’ll just alternate between pacing around and scrolling through Twitter!” spiral.
The experts—who, hm, are maybe cops!!!—also suggested an ever-reliable mood booster: working out. “One of the things we scientists always fall back on, because we know it helps, is exercise,” Kloob said. “Doing that always lifts your mood; it’s helpful for everything—including your heart and your brain.” Working out from home doesn’t have to be a whole thing; even 20 minutes of yoga, some push-ups and squats, or a solo dance party can do the trick.
No one is saying you can’t kill a six-pack while you’re stuck at home. “If you’re going to drink during this time, be clear about why you’re drinking and try to be honest about what you expect to get from it,” Howes said.
“If alcohol or drugs are now the majority of the legs supporting your table… that’s a problem,” Skale said. You may also have to accept that nothing will 'work' in the traditional sense right now. You might not feel great or like your normal self, which is a bummer, but also the reality of the circumstances. These are shitty, stressful, uncertain times. A trip to the liquor store can make them a little less shitty and stressful—at least temporarily—but it won’t make them any less uncertain, and could diminish your ability to fight infection. So: Go ahead and drink, but be mindful of your health, and, as in all things right now, keep your eyes on the long game.
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