For two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way Americans drink. Alcohol consumption is up. Heavy drinking among women is up. And stark new data says the number of alcohol-related deaths — including liver problems and accidents — jumped by 25% in 2020.
In many ways, it’s understandable, experts say.
“With people working remotely, [people] did not necessarily have to adhere to conventional business hours, and this made day drinking more common than it had been in decades among many professionals,” said Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist. “With limited ways to entertain themselves, and many people who were isolated, alcohol became an ‘easy fix’ to get through very challenging times.”
But with the worst of the pandemic hopefully in the rearview mirror, now can be a useful time to check in with yourself about your relationship with alcohol. Here are five simple questions to ask:
1. Have my patterns changed?
Experts believe that the number of “gray area” drinkers — a nonclinical term that refers to people whose drinking exists in a hazy space between two extremes — is on the rise. Gray area drinkers don’t necessarily have a problem with alcohol. But experts emphasize that if you find yourself questioning your relationship with alcohol, it’s important to explore why.
One way is to keep closer track of your current habits instead of flying on autopilot, and be honest with yourself about whether those habits have changed. Are you someone who used to drink only socially, but now drink every night? Are you regularly drinking more in one sitting than you used to? Look for shifts and new patterns.
“Those who found themselves over-imbibing during the pandemic should think back to the way they used to consume alcohol pre-COVID and see if they can get back on track with their consumption,” Hafeez said.
2. Am I thinking about drinking throughout the day?
“When you wake up in the morning and you go to work, are you thinking about five o’clock when you can have a glass of wine or a beer?” said Sarah O’Brien, an addiction specialist with Ark Behavioral Health, a rehab center in Massachusetts.
There might be days when you find yourself looking forward to a really nice bottle of wine you plan to open with a special dinner, or you’re meeting a friend for happy hour drinks and feeling excited about it. That’s different. “If this becomes a consistent thing, you can start to take a deeper look at it,” O’Brien said.
3. Am I able to stick to the limits I set for myself?
Often, people who are questioning their relationship with alcohol, or who are specifically looking to cut back, will set planned limits or goals, much as they might if they were working on healthy eating or exercise. For some people, the plan might be to drink only on certain nights of the week. For others, it might be more about how many drinks they consume.
If you find that you are making these kinds of “deals” with yourself, and that you can’t really follow them, it’s a good idea to explore why, Hafeez said. Are you using alcohol as a crutch? Have you gotten into a pattern that you need outside help in breaking?
4. Can I step away from drinking for a bit?
First, a reminder: None of the questions in this article are diagnostic, meaning they’re not necessarily those that a doctor would use to gauge whether someone is grappling with alcohol use disorder. (And if you do have a more serious drinking issue, you should be aware of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, which affects about 50% of people with alcohol use disorder when they stop drinking. It should be taken very seriously, and may require medical treatment.)
But if you’re someone who is just questioning gray area drinking habits, O’Brien said it may be useful to take a break for a certain period of time and see how it goes.
“You might say, ‘I’m not going to drink for the next two weeks.’ And if it becomes something that is overwhelmingly uncomfortable, certainly reevaluating if this is a bigger issue is necessary,” she said.
Those kinds of deliberate breaks can also help you shake up any patterns you’ve fallen into, O’Brien said. That’s why there’s some evidence to suggest that participating in “dry January” changes people’s drinking habits for months.
5. What do my friends or loved ones think about my alcohol consumption?
Ultimately, any changes you do (or don’t) make in terms of your drinking will start and end with you. But it can be useful to check in with a trusted friend, partner or relative to get feedback, Hafeez said. Ask them if they notice any changes in your drinking or behavior, or if they notice anything problematic.
Conversely, if you feel the need to hide your alcohol use from people in your life, that is a potential red flag, Hafeez said. It may be a sign that you know you’ve taken your drinking to a new level, and you’re worried your friends and loved ones would be alarmed if they were aware of that shift.
If you’re concerned about any of your answers to these questions, talk to someone.
Both O’Brien and Hafeez emphasized that there are many options available to people who are questioning their relationship with alcohol, whether that ultimately leads them on a path to sobriety or not.
“That is a big misconception. People think, ‘Oh my goodness, I may be drinking too much. Does this mean that for the rest of my life I can never drink again?’” O’Brien said.
Many people do find that giving up drinking is essential, she said. (Here’s some information about what alcohol use disorder entails.) But other people might simply find that their patterns have changed over time, and that they just want to scale back.
If you have questions about your circumstances or alcohol use, reach out to a primary care physician or a mental health provider. Hafeez said you might also consider checking out a support group or exploring an abstinence program like Alcoholics Anonymous, many of which now hold meetings online. Outside support can help provide clarity in a way that can be difficult to achieve on your own.
“The most important question to ask yourself is, ‘Am I in control of my alcohol consumption, or is it in control of me?’” Hafeez said.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
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