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What to do when you feel like your quarantine drinking is getting out of control

Erin Bunch

Erin BunchMay 1, 2020

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If you’ve been turning to virtual happy hours for stress relief, ending the day after working from home with a glass of bubbly, or sipping your favorite whiskey after a long, involved process of putting the kids to bed, you’re certainly not alone. And in this strange time, it seems like turning to alcohol has lifted many of our spirits (pun intended)—and so, we’ve turned to it with greater frequency.

This isn’t unusual behavior, given the context. “We learned from previous disasters, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, that alcohol consumption tends to increase in times of duress and uncertainty,” says George F. Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Addiction. “More people drink, and those who drink do so more heavily, during and after such events.”

In other words, using alcohol to unwind in troubled times is a totally predictable response, and not one for which you should judge yourself too harshly if done in moderation. “Most people are feeling very on edge right now, overwhelmed with the general sense of doom and gloom, anxiety, fear, and helplessness, so it makes perfect sense that people are turning to their go-to crutches for managing anxiety,” explains Los Angeles-based psychologist Sarah Neustadter, PhD. “Alcohol is the most common, socially-acceptable one, and most readily available, so it’s easiest for people to turn to a drink in times of stress.”

She adds that we may also be consoling ourselves with alcohol right now because it helps us approximate a sense of normalcy, to some extent. “Alcohol is associated with celebrations, and sharing a drink is a way we used to connect socially,” Dr. Neustadter explains. Or, says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, we might simply be bored, trapped in the house with difficult people, or stressed trying to fit everything in.

If the reason you’re wanting to pour another glass is mood-related, however, Dr. Koob cautions that drinking may do more harm than good. “Unfortunately, the relief alcohol provides for uncomfortable emotions is short-lived; feelings of anxiety, low mood, and irritability tend to increase when the buzz wears off, even after a single night of excessive consumption,” he says. “For people who regularly drink to excess, changes in the brain lead to increases in emotional misery between episodes of intoxication, motivating the drinker to drink again. In essence, using alcohol to medicate emotional misery ends up making people more emotionally miserable or one ends up drinking to fix the problem that alcohol caused.”

If you’ve found yourself self-medicating a little too often for your own liking—and potentially becoming unhappier as a result—it might be worth exploring alternative coping mechanisms; below, pros offer suggestions for booze-regulating behaviors to keep your consumption in check.

8 ways to cut back on drinking during the coronavirus pandemic if you think you’re starting to go overboard

1. Follow drinking best practices

First and foremost, it’s important not to let things go off the rails just because you can technically sleep in a bit later than usual these days (depending on your circumstances, of course). In other words, if you’re going to drink on a weeknight, drink as you would normally drink on a weeknight.

This means paying attention to hydration. “Counterintuitively, alcohol actually contributes to your daily fluid needs, so if you only have a glass or two of wine or beer, dehydration isn’t a big concern,” says Whitney English, RD. “If you drink excessively, however, alcohol will act as a diuretic and negate the fluid you consumed.”

The best way to stay hydrated, she says, is to keep an eye on your water intake and make the ratio 1:1. “A good rule of thumb is to space out drinks with a glass of water in between or drink a glass of water for every glass of alcohol you drink,” she says. “Keep in mind, however, that water will not ‘flush out alcohol’ or decrease your blood alcohol level.”

To avoid dehydration concerns altogether—and other ill effects of alcohol consumption—English advises abiding by the current drinking guidelines put forth by the CDC. “This means one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men,” she says. “Now, that doesn’t mean you can save up your drinks—any more than three drinks in one sitting is considered binge drinking and puts you at a greater risk of alcohol-related health consequences.”

You’ll also want to make sure you quit drinking two to three hours before bedtime. “It is best to get approximately seven to nine hours of sleep depending on your body, and if you have alcohol in your system, you’re less likely to get REM, or regenerative sleep,” says Dana Hunnes, PhD, RD, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “It takes approximately 1.25 hours for your body to process each drink, so if you have two drinks, it’s best to stop drinking at least 2.5 hours before bed.”

2. set Healthy boundaries

When self-control feels more difficult than usual, it might help to make it a bit trickier for yourself to go overboard. “You can’t drink alcohol that isn’t there,” Dr. Daramus says. “Get one bottle at a time or schedule a weekly delivery, and don’t let yourself go [shopping] just for alcohol.”

You may also want to choose a happy hour window in which you allow yourself to drink, leaving a large span of time in which you do not. “Set boundaries like only drinking during the hours of 6 and 8 p.m., or not drinking at all for 48 hours (so that alcohol metabolizes out of your system),” suggests Curious Elixirs founder John Wiseman. 

Once you’ve poured a glass, Kelli McGrane, registered dietitian for the nutrition app Lose It!, recommends keeping the bottle out of arm’s reach. “To help resist the urge to keep topping off your glass, keep the wine bottle in the kitchen rather than on the table next to you,” she says. 

Keeping track of your intake can help, too. “I recently read that if you keep a diary of how much you have had to drink in a week, it really increases your awareness and you are less likely to drink,” says Hunnes.

3. identify the root cause of your drinking

If you’re still drinking more than you’d like after adopting the above best practices, Dr. Daramus suggests you look at the problem you’re using alcohol to cope with—e.g. anxiety, boredom, a bad roommate, living with your parents, etc.—and then try to deal directly with that problem rather than slapping a booze Band-Aid on it. Dr. Neustadter agrees. “Becoming aware of the link between your feelings and your impulses is the first step in slowing down addictive tendencies,” she says. Meditation, as it turns out, can help with this.

If the root cause of your drinking habit is a relationship with someone in your home, Dr. Daramus recommends dealing with it first and foremost, as you’ll (obviously) be stuck in the situation for the foreseeable future.

4. Find other ways to fill your time

Just as is true in non-quarantine times, leaning into activities that don’t revolve around—and are potentially even hindered by—booze can help to curb drinking. “There are lots of online communities offering free classes, dinners, meditations, yoga, coaching, and even parties,” says Dr. Neustadter. “Kensho Health is a great platform for online community or to find a [wellness activity] practitioner. Many practitioners are offering very discounted rates now.” LA-based wellness tech startup Wellset is also offering extensive free programming. 

5. manage your expectations

If it’s being overwhelmed that’s leading you to drink, it’s probably time to let yourself off the hook. “You will not be able to get all of your work done, homeschool the kids, keep up all your workouts, cook every meal, do five online courses, and volunteer,” says Dr. Daramus. “What’s ‘good enough‘ right now?” This might be an especially helpful approach if it’s stressing you out to see others baking up a storm or working out like crazy while you’re barely getting the bare minimum done each day. Nothing says you have to approach this crisis like an opportunity; mere survival is fine, too.

6. Be decadent elsewhere

Fortunately, booze isn’t the only self-soother on the menu. “Indulge in some other way,” says Dr. Daramus. “You need pleasure and comfort right now.” Reality TV and sex (partnered or not) are two options that come to mind. See also: Ordering your favorite dish delivered from a local restaurant you want to support.

7. Reach for a healthy cocktail alternative

The sober-curious trend is onto something here. Plus, the best thing about sober drinking is you can start hitting the bottle at 9 a.m. without shame or regret.

There are a slew of non-alcoholic alcohol brands making their mark—from Lyre’s to Seedlip—both of which will give you that “I’m drinking a cocktail” taste and feeling. Brands like Kin Euphorics and Curious Elixirs sell pre-mixed adaptogenic cocktail alternatives designed for a variety of desired mood states and situations, e.g. relaxation, social fun (in your quarantine bubble, of course), and Zoom office happy hours.

If you’re more of a DIY quarantine gal, herbalist Rachelle Robinett offers advice for creating your own soothing beverage. “My favorite mocktail-makers are tinctures, sparkling water, and a little juice or muddled citrus,”she says. “In a pinch, just tinctures in water do the trick!” Her favorites for calming include either kava or a blend including lavender, passionflower, or chamomile. “For more uplifting and fun vibes, try damiana (works on the endocannabinoid system like CBD), mimosa (‘the tree of happiness’), hawthorn (for the heart), or any of the circulation-increasing crew (gingko, gotu kola, rosemary, cordyceps),” she says.

8. involve the pros

Sometimes, emotional crutches like booze are hard to hang up without a little help. “Telehealth, including video and phone therapy, is huge right now, and insurance companies are under pressure to pay for it,” says Dr. Daramus. If you’re concerned about how different your sessions will be as you transfer to teletherapy, we’ve got you covered. And if you’ve never been to therapy—remote or otherwise? Here’s a good place to start.

You, or someone you love, may need more intensive help, too. Dr. Koob recommends utilizing his organization’s website Rethinking Drinking to determine whether or not there’s a serious issue at hand, and then visiting the NIAAA Treatment Navigator for guidance on getting help. Dr. Neustadter also recommends virtual AA meetings, tele-therapy, and online support groups like One Year No Beer for those who can’t drink in moderation.

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