Heather Hunter June’21

Rethinking Pandemic Drinking

By Heather Anne Hunter

Bleary-eyed from working remotely and helping kids navigate their on-line schooling, young parents often feel they deserve a grown-up treat when computers are switched off – a cold beer or a sparkling glass of wine. But does one drink suffice? A single serving is only a 12 oz. can of beer, 1.5 ounces of spirits or 5 ounces of wine. It’s easy to pour a double.

Alcohol use is a common response to stress, as seen after 911 and Katrina. Because of the duration of the pandemic, the worry is that pandemic drinking habits could become entrenched and linger. A Nielsen Consumer survey reported a 54% increase in alcohol sales in March 2020 in the US. One in four millennials reports having upped alcohol consumption. People are drinking due to boredom, stress and loneliness.

Dr. Maristela Monteiro, senior advisor for the Pan American Health Organization, states bluntly, “It (alcohol) is not an essential product. It is not a healthy product.” The World Health Organization reports that drinking leads to worsening mental as well as physical health. The WHO encourages health systems to educate people more about the insidious effects of alcohol. Anti-smoking campaigns succeeded in increasing risk-awareness and reducing smoking. Should the government put warning labels on bottles like those on cigarette packs?

With changing norms toward female drinking and targeting by the industry, women are drinking more than ever. Women absorb and metabolize alcohol differently from men. One to two drinks a day raises the risk of breast cancer because alcohol increases estrogen production. Women have twice the potential for depression and anxiety which is exacerbated by drinking.

Alcohol is a major cause of cancer including liver, stomach, oral, esophagus, larynx and colon as well as cardiovascular disease, not to mention family and work related problems. Alcohol interferes with sleep patterns. Passing out for a couple of hours is not technically sleeping. Falling asleep only to awaken in the middle of the night with insomnia causes chronic fatigue.

Drinking is the go-to solution for people suffering emotionally, but ironically, alcohol is a depressant. Social media promotes alcohol as a cure for stress. Too often popular TV shows portray daily drinking as normal. The first thing television characters seem to do when they get home is open a bottle. The brilliant doctors on Grey’s Anatomy rush to Joe’s bar after a stressful day. We associate drinking with pleasure, good times with friends and family that we are longing for these days.

For many people, drinking has become routine. If you suspect that you are drinking too much, track your daily consumption on a calendar. Be honest. There’s no point trying to fool yourself, or your partner. The truth is usually obvious even if you try to hide it. Limit the number of drinks per day and have some off days to break the cycle and give your system a rest. However, just one drink lessens inhibitions, so for some, gone is the ability to control drinking.

Alcohol calms the nerves and lifts the spirits – for about 15 minutes. Then anxiety sets in and another drink is needed to alleviate the return of anxious or depressed feelings. A vicious cycle begins. If you can’t stick to a harm reduction schedule, it may be simpler to just quit drinking entirely rather than trying (and often failing) to cut back. Do it for yourself, not just to get your partner off your case. Shaming never helped anyone to succeed.

Distraction works well when trying to break a bad habit. Pleasurable activities can be substituted for habitual drinking. A good book transports you. Laughing out loud at a television comedy is good medicine. Going outdoors for a walk or a chat with neighbours will get you through the witching hour and hungry for supper. A drink has volume leaving less room for healthy calories. Alcohol does not induce the desire to exercise or do much else. Without it, time and money are freed up for more beneficial things like quality time with the family or that hobby set aside for too long.

If you want to reduce your alcohol consumption, triggers need to be identified and resistance strategies planned to counteract social pressures. Say “no thanks” firmly and without hesitation when offered an alcoholic drink, or request a soft drink. You can be candid and say you are cutting back or quitting or say nothing at all. It’s your business. Don’t be pressured and don’t expect praise or support from drinkers who have no desire to quit themselves; they might feel a tad jealous of your resolve or guilty about their own drinking. You could lose friends. No worries; you will be surprised by how many people are on the same quest as you to lead a healthier, happier life.

There are so many rewards to living without alcohol: feeling good, losing weight, having more energy, time and money! For those who find it difficult, or can’t, there is tele-help, on-line support and AA zoom meetings during the pandemic. Like everything, benefits should out weight the risks. Take stock and make a conscious decision about drinking. It’s up to you. It’s your life.

~  Heather Hunter is a retired school teacher living in Cliffside. The opinions expressed are her own.