COVID-19 has stopped the United States in its tracks. With over 140,900 confirmed cases of the virus as of March 30, 2020, the pandemic is effecting all 50 states and drastic measures are starting to be enforced. The most serious tactics being used to try and combat the spread of the virus are stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders that are occurring around the country and the world. In the United States, 21 states have issued stay at home orders for their residents. Schools are closed, many businesses were ordered to close or allow their employees to work from home, and gatherings of more than 10 are strongly discouraged; in some states or cities, they are actually against the law. No one knows how long these drastic measures will be needed but, for many, it’s a stressful time, and some are trying to cope with the help of everyone’s favorite social lubricant: alcohol. Unfortunately, for some, alcohol consumption creates a whole new set of issues that must be dealt with.
Impact on the Country
The effects the pandemic is having on the country are no less than disastrous. More than 3 million people filed for unemployment in the months of February and March, and that number is expected to increase. Hospitals in the affected areas such as New York City, the State of Washington, New Orleans, and Chicago are being overrun with cases. There are already reports that there won’t be enough ventilators for those who need them. Because of the shelter-in-place orders in many states, people are cut off from friends and family members and, because testing had just started, many are wondering if they have the virus or have been exposed to it. There have been shortages of common goods and supplies such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer. All of these factors, combined with stay-at-home orders in attempts to keep the virus from spreading further, are causing increased stress for many people, some of whom are turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism. Others are suffering from depression because they’re out of work, worried about becoming ill, they were suffering from depression already, or they might be forced to shelter in place alone and be feeling isolated and cut off from friends and family. These people might also drink to try and cope with their situation.
More People Staying Home
Those who suffer from depression and, often-related, alcohol abuse already feel isolated and alone, even when they’re in a room full of people. They can feel misunderstood, judged, and looked down on. They might feel like their friends and family only spend time with them out of pity or obligation and that, if given the choice, these people would never be around. These are the thoughts depression can put in a person’s head, and some people use alcohol to keep these thoughts at bay. However, now that people are forced to stay home, there are even more people being left alone with their thoughts and that has the possibility of leading to increased use of alcohol and negative feelings about themselves and others. These feelings often cause the person to lash out and drive others away, though right now they don’t even have that option if they are isolated away from family and friends. This then causes the person to feel even more lonely and isolated and they drink more; it truly creates a vicious cycle from which a person may have a hard time finding a means of escape.
Increasing Stress and Anxiety
Stress can cause anxiety and anxiety can cause stress. For many people, not being able to work, go to school, or even leave the house is stressful. If their income has been cut off, the stress of that can lead to anxiety about how to pay the bills, not lose the car, or even buy food. Even if money isn’t a stressor, going to the store and not being able to find needed items can lead to stress and anxiety about how to make do without those items and even those who have family with them in quarantine may eventually be stressed by the constant closeness of people and never being able to get away. Eventually, some of these people turn to some substance in the hope that it will take away the stress and take the edge off the anxiety. For many, the solution is alcohol. However, with schedules being thrown off, and nothing to hold you to only drinking on the weekends or in the evening, with more and more alcohol being needed to continue to repeatedly get the desired effect, and one’s body slowly becoming dependent on alcohol in order to function; it’s no wonder some people begin to drink throughout the day, even to the point of constant drunkenness, in order to escape their circumstances. An otherwise healthy person can begin to have problems with blood pressure, heart, weight, liver, or other organs as alcohol use increases. Now, the physical issues start to feed the stress and anxiety, continuing the destructive pattern.
Increase in Substance Abuse During Disasters/Emergencies
During a disaster or emergency, people often start to feel overwhelmed, especially once the adrenaline from the initial disaster has worn off. Dealing with the aftermath of an emergency or disaster, or one that continues day after day, increases both stress levels and a person’s desire to find relief from the overwhelming emotions of grief, fear, or loss. For many, alcohol provides an escape from these emotions. But as we’ve seen, to get the same level of relief, over time a person must consume more alcohol, which leads to both physical and mental dependence on the substance to function. So, long after the emergency has passed, the need to self-medicate can remain and increase over time.
Increase in Drinking and Alcohol Abuse
Fear of the unknown can cause people to turn to alcohol for relief. People have no idea of how any of us are going to fare in this crisis. People are worried about themselves, their loved ones, their jobs, how they’re going to pay the bills, and what the world is going to look like with this is all over. There is a constant stream of information about the crisis being fed to us by the media and our own social connections. It’s almost impossible to escape it. So, for many, the news and the fear of the unknown is easier to handle with a beer, a glass of wine, or a cocktail by their side. The problems start when that one beer to calm our nerves turns into a six-pack and then a case. Or that one glass of wine turns into the entire bottle, or a seemingly never-ending box.
Alcohol abuse isn’t a sudden thing. It creeps up on you slowly, and by the time you realize there might be a problem, it’s already a problem. And, with people under a constant stream of stress, if they don’t have a positive outlet to deal with it, alcohol can quickly become the cure and then its own disease. If your weekly trip to the store for your case of beer starts to turn into a couple of times a week practice, there might be a problem. If you can’t bear to hear the news or think about your future without alcohol in your system, this too could be a red flag. If you’re sneaking away to another room to drink because you don’t want your family or friends to see you drinking, you might be heading into dangerous territory. Because the more you drink, the more your body, including your brain, starts to depend on the alcohol to function. And, once your body needs alcohol, you can’t just quit drinking. And, the more dependent your body becomes, the more difficult it becomes to wean yourself from it. For some, recognizing that there is a problem and making a conscious decision to cut back on drinking is enough to stave off serious addiction, but for others, more intervention might be needed to deal with the chemical dependency that can also accompany the emotional and mental dependency.
What Does Getting Help Look Like During These Times?
For many, the current situation we are experiencing as a nation is truly a worst-case scenario. People are trapped in their homes; they have no idea whether they will have a job when this all ends, and some are waiting to hear if they or a loved one has been personally affected by the virus itself. So, it’s not a shock that many are turning to alcohol to try and find some relief from the fear and stress they’re experiencing. And sadly, this means that many will develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol up to and including addiction. If you or a loved one are struggling and wondering if you’ve developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, here are a few things to look for:
If any of these apply, you might be dealing with the beginnings or an addiction to alcohol. Exhibiting one or two of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem, but the more that apply, the more consideration you might want to give to seeking help. Fortunately, even during this time of sheltering at home, there are resources that can help someone who might need help. All offer services online or over the phone:
In the event that someone is suffering from severe alcohol abuse requiring medical treatment, the DEA has relaxed the requirement that anyone seeking prescription treatment for a substance abuse problem can be seen via a teleconsultation instead of having to physically visit a physician. This is due to the crisis and is most likely a temporary solution, but if you’re in a crisis right now, it’s a great option to get help when you need it.
Drink Responsibly and We Can All Do Our Part to Get Through This
Although we’re all looking for ways to cope during this crisis, it’s important to do so in healthy ways. Consuming more alcohol than usual is a dangerous practice and it would be best to avoid it if possible, especially when it could be dangerous to be hospitalized, for you and others. Drinking alone is never advised, so if you feel the urge to drink, do so with a friend or family member of the legal drinking age. Please keep in mind that we are to practice social distancing, so your in-person group should be 10 people or less, and preferably made up of people already in the home. Another option: get together with friends over Facetime, webchat, Skype, Netflix Party or some other communication device. This will keep you from drinking alone and from feeling isolated and lonely. This is a scary time for all of us, but if we work together we can get through this crisis without creating new addictions and causing new problems for us to overcome. It’s cliché, but it’s true: This too shall pass.