Strategies for Preventing Substance Abuse During the Pandemic

The current pandemic has presented a host of social, emotional, and economic difficulties.  With a rise in psychological stressors and perceived threat attached to COVID-19, substance use rates have risen.  Nielsen statistics regarding alcohol sales reported a 54% increase in the United States for the week ending March 21, 2020 compared with the year prior.  Similarly, U.S. adults reported a 14% increase in alcohol use during spring 2020 compared to one year earlier.  Heavy drinking episodes, defined as at least four drinks in one setting, were up by 41% in 2020 particularly for women.  Used as a form of coping known as self-medicating, people are turning to alcohol for a fast, albeit temporary relief from the emotional demands of the current times.  As a depressant, alcohol can be effective at relieving physiological symptoms of stress, anxiety, even depression; however, this elation is commonly followed by a significant emotional low and may exacerbate the emotions it was intended to relieve.  Physically, alcohol may weaken the body’s immune system, making one more susceptible to a host of illnesses including COVID-19.  With substance use at a high-water mark, COVID-19 on the rise and the flu season upon us, we are about to enter another period of time known for escalating alcohol use – the holiday season.  This may be a crucial time for Americans to evaluate their current drinking habits and consider heathier behavior patterns.  The following consideration may help evaluate, replace and seek support for unhealthy drinking behaviors.

To begin, creating some personal limits and boundaries will allow people to make the necessary changes to current drinking patterns this season:

  • Set limits on how much is too much.  One serving of wine equates to 5 oz.  This is a good parameter to keep in mind when pouring “one glass of wine”.  A heavy hand may actually be pouring one and a half to two servings in one glass, so it’s important to get a sense of how much you are actually consuming.  Keep in mind that “heavy drinking” is defined as eight drinks per week for women and 15 for men and has a significant effect on mental and physical health.  
  • Watch for softening of typical boundaries around alcohol use.  The pandemic brought increases in emotionality/uncertainty as well as changes to normal routines.  The holidays are perfectly positioned to compound both of these factors.  When daily routines are relaxed so can standard drinking times.  The typical five o’clock happy hour may slide to four or three o’clock to cope with the stressful nature of our changed daily lives and bring some merriment to the season.  This additional consumption puts people at risk for increased alcohol use and proves difficult to reverse if it becomes a habit.  

Behavioral change may be attempted through use of “replacement behaviors”.  Substituting a destructive behavior for a positive one that directly competes can be an effective strategy to help break a habit.   Consider the following changes or replacements: 

  • Change the focus of social events.  With the holidays comes an increase of events focused around drinking.  Instead of a virtual happy hour consider substituting a virtual bake off.  Instead of a socially distant holiday party, consider a socially distant fun run or virtual charitable fundraiser.  Altering the expected social behavior from drinking to something that promotes health or altruism may help curb overindulgence.
  • Consider healthier options for stress and coping.  Instead of an evening glass of wine or beer consider a five o’clock smoothie or fresh pressed juice.  Make the typical window for consumption of alcohol the window for consumption of daily vitamins.  Perhaps instead of a nightcap, find relaxation and peace in gentle exercise, meditation, or use this as a time to connect with friends and family.

It is also important to recognize the CDC reported a 43% increase in alcohol related fatalities from 2006 to 2018.  If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol in such a way that the above behavior modification strategies are ineffective, or are just not enough consider the following:  

  • Contact your doctor.  Your primary care physician may be able to help you find more intensive interventions.  Virtual treatment and recovery programs, medication assisted treatment, or less invasive community programs aimed at supporting healthy choices may be available.
  • Call Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) or the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service.  This confidential service can provide support within your comfort zone.  Dial 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to speak with someone about an alcohol related concern.

This holiday season will be different than others and has the potential to bring a new and unique set of emotional stressors.  Take care of yourself, prioritize your well-being and focus on prevention by engaging in behaviors that promote wellness and health.  While the past year has been challenging, hope is on the horizon.  The upcoming New Year brings new beginnings and new opportunities.  Put yourself, your health and your family first and stay safe.  

Michelle McDonald, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist