Alcohol is a common feature of our social events. A trip to the pub with friends can bring feelings of joy and help us to unwind after a long day in work. Pleasurable activities such as time with friends are important for keeping us active and help to make our lives fulfilling. The Covid-19 lockdowns prevented us from engaging in many of these activities. As a result, many people found themselves reaching for new (often unhelpful) ways of coping. Although pubs and bars were closed, alcohol consumption continued in private. While alcohol in moderation is not something to be concerned with, an increase in your normal levels of consumption may flag a problem.
Each year alcohol causes some 3 million deaths worldwide. Excessive drug and alcohol use can lead to all sorts of issues in our personal and professional lives. Drinking heavily over a long period of time can cause long-lasting or permanent changes to the brain. Alcohol use also poses specific concerns such as an increased risk of changes in personality, domestic violence, mental health problems including depression. A link between alcohol and suicide has also been identified. The older we get, the harder it is for us to process and clear alcohol from the body. Given the negative consequences of excessive drinking it is worth considering the factors that can lead to increases in alcohol consumption.
Stress is a common factor which can lead to alcohol use and misuse. Around 50% of adults who drink in Ireland report using alcohol as a way of coping as well as managing stress and anxiety. Occupational stress combined with the stress related to covid-19 can be a recipe for disaster.
One-third of families reported experiencing anxiety and stress over the past two years due to the pandemic. Some of these stresses included feeling threats to family health, experiencing changes in work roles as well as the added burden of homeschooling. Many experienced social isolation, grief and loneliness. According to Revenue, the closing of on‐premise alcohol consumption sites led to a reduction in alcohol sales. However the results from research studies conducted over the last 2 years show that underneath the surface, the situation in terms of alcohol consumption may be more complicated.
A study conducted in 2020 found that supermarket sales of alcohol rose by 67 % in the United Kingdom. Similar trends were identified in other countries including the USA, Australia and Germany. Of those adults surveyed, between one fifth and one quarter reported drinking more than they normally would. Psychological stress and the threats associated with Covid-19 were reported as the reasons for this increase. Research conducted during other global events such as recessions have demonstrated similar increases in alcohol consumption. Although it may seem like a simple solution, drinking to cope with negative feelings and stress is unhelpful, causes new problems and leaves us feeling worse. It is therefore worthwhile assessing your current drinking habits.
Signs of problematic drinking include wanting to cut down or stop drinking but not managing to, spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from alcohol, experiencing cravings or urges to drink as well as struggling to manage day-to-day responsibilities such as work, home and relationships because of substance use. If you are experiencing several of the above signs, its worthwhile seeking help. If you are concerned about your drinking, support is available from your doctor/GP, counselling or psychotherapy, group therapy, rehab programmes as well as self-help support.
With Covid-19 restrictions now lifted in Ireland, it is worthwhile having a think about our relationship with alcohol. With reflection we can explore alternative and healthier coping strategies that don’t involve harmful drinking. From a public health perspective there is an opportunity to study the causes of increased alcohol consumption resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns which could help to target public health interventions going forward.
If you are interested in learning more about current thinking and practice in the area of addictive behaviours and substance use/abuse, sign up to our Professional Diploma in Addition Studies starting 28th April 2022.
Dr. Aoife Quinn,
Dean, Faculty of Psychology