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Health Information | 05/12/2022

Using Alcohol to Cope With Stress

By  Emily Kurtz, LCSW
The last two years have been a rollercoaster for most of us. Even among the most financially stable Americans, mask mandates, school closures, health concerns, and vaccine hesitancy have made for some taxing dinner table conversations. Social isolation, unemployment, financial stressors, and fear of infection and death have contributed to rising levels of anxiety and depression. As if we needed another thing to stress about! How do we cope with these rising stress levels? Many Americans may have turned to the bottle to find comfort. According to a study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), binge drinking increased by 21% during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is Binge Drinking?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines binge drinking as consuming four or more drinks in a 2-hour period for females and five or more drinks in a 2-hour period for males. According to the CDC, binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States. Although a night of heavy drinking may help us temporarily distract from our problems, research shows that the long-term consequences far outweigh the benefits. According to the researchers at MGH, the effects of this spike in binge drinking will lead to 8,000 deaths from alcohol-related liver disease and 18,700 new cases of liver failure by 2040. Alcohol lowers serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. Therefore, binge drinking can lead to worsening depression and anxiety. Drinking heavily to cope with stress is actually counterproductive. It can make problems caused by the pandemic seem ten times worse!

Monitoring Your Drinking Habits

With so much social isolation and happy hours on Zoom, it makes sense that many of us would reach for a drink more often. While an occasional glass of wine to unwind might be harmless, using alcohol to cope with stress on a regular basis can have many unintended health consequences. It’s a good idea to be aware of how much alcohol you’re drinking during times of stress. To keep within safe drinking levels, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men. A standard drink is labeled as 12 oz. of beer, 5 oz. of wine, or 1.5 oz. of distilled liquor. There are tools available to help you assess your drinking habits. An online blood alcohol concentration calculator can help estimate blood-alcohol levels based on gender, weight, and the amount and type of alcohol consumed. There are also smartphone apps that may be helpful. The “Reframe: Drink Less and Thrive More” app uses evidenced-based cognitive tools to help users contemplate their drinking levels and make meaningful changes.

When Drinking Becomes a Problem

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines criteria to help you determine if your drinking has become more indicative of an alcohol-use disorder. If you are worried about yourself or a loved one, here are some questions to ask:
  • Do you feel a loss of control over your alcohol use?
  • Do you have a desire to stop drinking or cut back but feel unable to do so?
  • Do you use alcohol in high-risk situations, like driving?
  • Do you spend more time than you used to obtaining alcohol, drinking, or recovering from its effects?
  • Do you need more alcohol than you used to in order to get a “buzz”?
  • When not drinking, do you experience cravings, sweats, or nausea?
  • Are you continuing to drink despite the problems it is causing at school, work, or at home?
If you answered yes to one or more of the questions above, you should consider reaching out for help.

Getting Help

Seeking therapy or joining a peer-support group may be beneficial if you think your drinking has become a problem. It is essential to find alternative ways of finding pleasure and relaxation, such as through exercise, meditation, or spending time outdoors. If you are concerned about your alcohol use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or contact your primary care provider for help.

About The Author

Emily Kurtz, LCSW

Emily Kurtz, LCSW, is an Atrius Health behavioral fellow at our Harvard Vanguard Beverly office. Her clinical interests include substance use disorders, eating disorders, and working with youth and adults. Emily currently helps run therapeutic groups at Atrius Health and sees clients individually. She has received training through the fellowship on a number of relevant topics and is well-versed in dialectical behavioral therapy. Before joining Atrius Health, Emily worked at a college counseling center and at Cambridge Health Alliance. She has also worked with youth and adults in residential and inpatient psychiatric settings.

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