Recent research has reported that 48% of Britons have increased their alcohol use during the pandemic, which will come as no surprise to many. It seems we can’t browse social media without seeing a meme or funny video depicting a dishevelled parent pouring wine on to their cereal while home schooling or someone claiming to only have one drink a day but holding a glass the size of a fishbowl. Although we might not actually be drowning our cornflakes in pinot (well some of us might!) the reality is we are a nation of people whose resilience is waning the longer this pandemic goes on.
We’re feeling bored, anxious, lonely, angry, uncertain, scared and a whole host of other difficult and unsettling emotions. This is where alcohol can seem like the answer to the problem, a quick pick me up to lift the spirits or a way to relax and forget about the stress we are all facing at the moment.
Us Brits are known for our love of a tipple (or 10). We use alcohol to drown our sorrows, to celebrate our achievements and at all manner of events from christenings to funerals and everything in between.
Alcohol is a part of our culture, as soon as the sun starts to shine, we flock to the supermarket for crates of beer and bottles of wine and invite our friends and family round for BBQ’s. When big sporting competitions happen, we go to the pub and drink the day away watching our teams. We spend days at the races drinking Pimms and champagne, never actually seeing a horse!
Messages encouraging us to drink are everywhere. Just the other day I saw a bag for life in the supermarket with the words ‘let the party be gin’ sprawled across it. The recent headlines related to moving out of lockdown are heavily focussed on when the pubs will reopen. We are constantly exposed to alcohol in one way or another and it is often marketed in a way that associates it with positive emotions and experiences.
There’s no denying alcohol can be very effective at changing your mood, taking the edge off stress and lessening anxiety. However, what can initially seem like a solution to the problem can ultimately become the problem itself. Because alcohol can be so effective, often alternative ways of achieving what you are trying to with alcohol pale in comparison or take much more effort. Tolerance to its effects can build quite quickly meaning you need more for it to have the desired impact. With these factors in mind, it’s easy to see how problematic alcohol use can creep up on you.
It can start as a couple of glasses of wine or a couple of bottles of beer to unwind after a stressful day at work. Then as your tolerance builds, those couple of drinks become 3 or 4 and then you start to open that bottle earlier and earlier. Then on a weekend maybe 3 or 4 becomes 5 or 6 or even more as an extra ‘treat’. Before you’ve realised it, you’re drinking every day and start to feel as though you can’t cope without it.
Addiction happens on a continuum and doesn’t have to be a physical dependence on something that results in withdrawal symptoms in its absence or daily use that means you can’t go to work or look after your children. Those stereotypes are just that, stereotypes. Addiction can most definitely look like this but it presents itself in many different ways and certainly doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can be vulnerable to it because everyone has needs that must be met and addiction is often about meeting those needs. Whether that’s a need for connection, a need to feel calm, a need to feel confident, a need to forget or a need to manage difficult emotions.
As I write this there is no judgement if you have used alcohol to meet your needs. I speak to people on a weekly basis who do just that and I’ll hold my hands up and say I’ve done the very same thing. I’d encourage you to be curious and honest about your alcohol use and the motivation for it, curious without judgement. If it isn’t impacting negatively on your health (physical and mental), work, relationships, parenting and finances then fantastic it’s likely you have a healthy relationship with alcohol.
It’s fair to say alcohol use will impact on these things from time to time. For example, being less productive at work after one too many the night before or just not having the motivation to bake those buns your little one desperately wants to or counting down the days to pay day because you splurged on a night out (remember those!). The problem comes when alcohol consistently and regularly impacts negatively on different areas of your life.
So, if any of this has resonated with you and you recognise that you could benefit from making some changes to your relationship with alcohol here are some tips that may help.
Tips for Reducing Your Alcohol Use
1. Keep a diary of your alcohol use for a few weeks. Seeing the numbers in black and white can help you decide if you want to make some changes.
2. Notice if there is a pattern to when you drink. For example, opening a bottle while making tea or once the kids are in bed. Try to create different habits around this time to break the pattern.
3. Count the calories of your drinks for a week. A lot of alcoholic drinks are quite calorific. So, if you’re trying to lose or manage your weight, reducing your alcohol intake can help to reduce your overall calories.
4. Appeal to your vanity. Alcohol accelerates the aging process and can cause wrinkles, puffiness, dryness and visible capillaries on the skin. If you’re conscious of your appearance, this may help to motivate you to reduce your alcohol intake.
5. Set boundaries around your alcohol use. Some examples include no midweek drinking, no emotional drinking (i.e. drinking in response to managing emotions), no more than X amount of units per time, no alcohol before 7pm etc. As a general guide, Public Health England recommends no more than 14 units of alcohol per week and at least 2 drink free days per week.
6. Replace what you drink with a lower % drink. For example, drinking 5% wine as opposed to 12% or switching from spirits to wine. This helps to reduce your overall units.
7. Consider what need your alcohol is meeting. Are you bored, stressed, lonely? Ask yourself how else can I meet this need. Do you need to learn other ways of relaxing? Do you need to reach out to people more?
8. Practice self-care. When you take time to practice self-care regularly you are valuing yourself and your needs. Problematic alcohol use is often in conflict with this valuing process. Consequently, self-care can help you to look honestly at your alcohol use and decide if it is something that you want to make changes to.
9. Reward yourself when you make changes to your alcohol use and achieve those goals you set yourself, you deserve it.