Joe Dinan heard a twitch of anxiety in his ears as he walked out of CVS and saw the liquor store across the street. Having lost his job during the pandemic, he’d had plenty of time to run errands. But he couldn’t shake how hopeless he felt, abandoned by his own sense of purpose. And the liquor store was exactly where he had left it. A small bottle of vodka got the better of her recovery.
In the era of the pandemic, uncertainty hangs in the air. Now, new data shows that during the COVID-19 crisis, American adults dramatically increased their alcohol consumption, drinking more days a month and to a greater extent. Especially the consumption of alcohol among women has soared.
The study, released Tuesday by the RAND corporation and supported by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), compared adult drinking habits from 201
Based on the findings, experts say they are concerned about how people might choose to alleviate the pain and isolation caused by the pandemic.
“The magnitude of these increases is surprising,” Michael Pollard, lead author of the study and sociologist at RAND, told ABC. “People’s depression increases, anxiety increases, [and] alcohol consumption is often a way to cope with these feelings. But depression and anxiety are also the result of drinking; it’s this feedback loop where it exacerbates the problem it’s trying to solve. “
Between 2019 and today during the pandemic, men and women both reported increasing the frequency of their binge drinking episodes, defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women within a couple of hours. For women, the count increased by half.
“Moving the average up means that some people are really increasing their binge drinking,” Pollard said. “For women in particular it can often be a neglected issue, but it’s a real concern.”
The study shows that not only has consumption increased, but respondents also say they have experienced greater negative impacts as a result of their alcohol consumption.
Respondents were presented with 15 possible negative results and asked to identify which one was true for them. Among the yes or no options were: “I was miserable because of my drinking”, “I felt guilty or ashamed about my drinking”, “I took stupid risks when I drank” and “My my family was hurt by my drinking. “
From 2019 to 2020, the average number of the 15 questions women answered “yes” nearly doubled, from two last year to more than three during the pandemic. In 2019, men on average answered “yes” to four of the questions, compared to about five in 2020.
“There is a story with events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes and other catastrophes that people drink more after the trauma,” NIAAA director Dr. George Koob. “Alcohol is a very effective pain reliever. But when it wears off, that pain comes back with a vengeance.”
Dinan, 42, has been working to control his alcohol consumption for the past seven years. Now it’s back on track, but the stress of the pandemic has made it more difficult than ever.
“It got to a point where everything just got worse, and I didn’t know what to do,” Dinan said. “When you’re convalescing, you’re told you shouldn’t isolate yourself, and now that’s exactly what we’re told to do. We drink to hide from feelings, we hide from life. We tend to isolate ourselves. It really makes progress. Now people are. isolated at home. And it represents a real challenge “.
“Even when we’re doing well, for someone in recovery who is doing very well, our demons come back with the stress and can trigger a relapse,” Koob said.
Sarah Hepolah, writer and recovered alcoholic whose bestselling memoir, “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget,” addressed her substance abuse, was candid about the struggle and how hard it is for people to stay healthy and sober when closing.
“The world took away the rest of the coping mechanisms – and so you have this thing and it has a kind of evil charm,” Hepolah told ABC. “I was very called by that voice of romantic fate – going to the liquor store for ‘supplies’ – as if it were a camping trip. And somehow it was. I was going camping from life.”
It’s an attractive escape from reality, experts say, especially when that reality has started to look dystopian. This fascination, RAND data shows, seems particularly strong for women.
“It’s a perfect drug for women in particular, in many ways,” Hepolah said. “It makes you feel braver, empowered, stronger, it’s a pain management system – and it’s a forgetful drug, and many of us are in a place where we don’t want to think much right now. women go right now, many of them are bearing the brunt of dealing with both work and added household stresses, home education, childcare, keeping the family from falling apart. A glass of wine or two, “mother’s little helper”, this is socially acceptable. “
Drinking in itself isn’t a bad thing – it’s built into our social infrastructure as a way to bring loved ones together through shared experiences. This remained true during the pandemic, where Zoom cocktail parties took the place of traditional gatherings.
During the closure, innovative ways to bring alcohol home took off, with online app sales connecting consumers to liquor stores for home delivery. One such company, Drizly, told ABC that during the first days of the lockdown, it experienced a surge in growth of 700-800%. It has since stabilized but are still at 350% growth from last year.
But with that unprecedented demand, Drizly’s Liz Paquette said, comes the responsibility of knowingly handling their product.
“At a time when we’re frighteningly socially distanced, keeping connected with our loved ones is important to many people,” Paquette said. “But it can be a slippery slope. And so we practice great care with our messages and communications. We are careful to make sure we are not implying that alcohol should be used as a coping mechanism. We don’t glorify getting drunk. We don’t push shots.”
When they started seeing their snowball sales, Paquette said, they paused on their paid media spending, making sure they had both supplies and safe messages to meet the influx of demand.
“It is important for us both as human beings in this company and as an organization to understand our role within this space and to make sure we act as responsibly as possible,” said Paquette.
When alcohol becomes a crutch to sublimate unwanted pain, however, it becomes a problem.
“It’s a way to deal with this stress,” Koob said, “but when you start drinking to fix something or not feel something, alcohol makes things worse. It gets very insidious.”
When the coronavirus began to spread this spring and alcohol sales began to rise, the The World Health Organization has warned that alcohol use could potentially exacerbate health problems and risky behaviors.
Alcohol abuse poses unique risks in the current COVID-19 crisis, potentially making people more vulnerable to disease, experts say.
“Chronic alcohol consumption has historically been shown to increase the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome,” Koob said. Fluid builds up in the lungs, preventing them from filling up with enough air. Less oxygen reaches the bloodstream, depriving the organs of what they need to function.
“At a time when we should be very careful, this seems like a particularly bad time for altered judgment when we should be paying close attention to our behaviors,” Pollard said. “There are real risks with lasting consequences.”
As a result, experts say, this unprecedented crisis could offer new opportunities to rethink pain management.
“People may not want to quit drinking because they don’t want to change their world,” Hepolah said. “But now, the world has changed. And we’re here, whether we like it or not. So the question becomes: who do you want to be?”
If you or someone close to you need help with a substance use disorder, call the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Helpline (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit FindTreatment.gov, SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Service Locator.
Sony Salzman and Eric Strauss of ABC News contributed to this report.