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Kicking the Pandemic Alcohol Habit

A person turns down the offer of a glass of wine

The isolation and anxiety of COVID-19 created a gateway for alcohol and substance misuse. Two years later many people are struggling to reverse habits formed during the pandemic. Now we’re moving past what we hope was the pandemic’s peak. This is a good time to assess whether we need to reduce our drinking to achieve a healthier lifestyle — physically and mentally.

Nationally, we saw alcohol consumption rise 14% among adults over age 30. Among women in particular, there was a 41% increase in heavy drinking, according to a September 2020 RAND Corporation study. This is particularly worrisome since alcohol has a disproportionately stronger effect on women compared to men, due to differences in metabolism and body water composition.

Alcohol Impacts Mental Health, Too

Alcohol overuse has serious physical effects, from liver disease to increased risks for stroke, cancers, vitamin deficiencies, and more. It also impacts mental health in profound ways.

In the short term, it can lead to poor judgement, car accidents, and domestic violence. It is a known risk factor for sexual assault and death by suicide. Heavy drinking is also associated with depression, anxiety, and even psychosis.

Underlying mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression can drive alcohol misuse, as people try to self-medicate to feel better.

The first step to eliminating dependence on alcohol is realizing there’s a problem. This is not as easy as it seems, because addiction changes the way the brain works and makes it difficult to recognize excessive drinking. In addition, drinking alcohol is an integral part of American social life and is depicted frequently in popular entertainment, and the temptation to join in is difficult to avoid.

The Warning Signs of Overuse

Experts point to several key signs to determine when alcohol use has become a problem. These include:

  • A craving for alcohol
  • The building up of tolerance — in which more alcohol is needed to achieve the same effects (sometimes accompanied by withdrawal — the experience of shaking and sweats in the absence of drinking)
  • Loss of control, in which a person drinks more than they intend to and is unable to stop.

In addition, family members and friends are often a reliable source and are usually the first to notice when alcohol misuse impacts work and family obligations. Finally, a sign of problem drinking is when important life areas, roles, and duties are negatively affected by drinking and/or its consequences.

As with most health concerns, a good first step is to talk with your family doctor or primary care provider. They are trained to manage problems of addiction and can steer you to the right kind of care. This may include therapy that can help you create a practical plan to change drinking behavior, think through potential barriers in advance, and develop drink refusal skills.

Treatment may also include several services including (but not limited to) talk therapies, medication-assisted treatment, rehabilitation services, and peer support.

Take a Free Screening

Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services has a broad list of resources for information and support. If you’re unsure whether your use of alcohol needs to be addressed, you can complete a free online screening at HealthyMindsPhilly.

COVID-19 has brought unprecedented stress to all of our lives. Two years into the pandemic, it’s a good time to check in with ourselves and plan a healthy path forward. Fortunately, just as we didn’t have to weather COVID-19 alone, we don’t have to navigate sobriety alone either.

Useful Links

If You Need Help

If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.

For more information about depression, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

Dr. Sosunmolu Shoyinka

About Dr. Sosunmolu Shoyinka

Dr. Sosunmolu Shoyinka serves as Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS). In this role, he works to assure optimal population health for all Philadelphians by aligning policy, programs, and system processes with current best practice. Dr. Shoyinka’s clinical experience includes telemedicine, academic medicine, for-profit and state hospitals, forensics, correctional mental health, primary care, federally qualified health centers, health homes, and community mental health. He is board certified in general adult psychiatry, community and public psychiatry, and addiction medicine.