There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost everyone’s lives in some way. Whether you know someone with the virus, you’ve lost your job, the change in routine has made life difficult, or you miss interacting with others, this pandemic has changed the way many people live.
As a result, mental health has become a growing concern throughout the country. Research discovered that from February 16-March 15, prescriptions for antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and anti-insomnia medication all increased by 21%. The most troublesome statistic, however, is that 78% of those prescriptions were new.
The issues of stress, anxiety, and depression caused or exacerbated by COVID-19 are very real and serious. People don’t always turn to healthy coping mechanisms or even prescription medications to help with these mental health issues. Unfortunately, things like alcohol are often a “replacement” for more beneficial treatment options.
And, it appears some Americans are choosing to “self-medicate” with alcohol. In March, alcoholic beverage sales rose by 55% over the previous year. While some of it could have indeed been stockpiling due to stay-at-home orders, the increase also signals that alcohol abuse could be a problem for many people.
What does that mean as we face a “new” normal? How will the increase in alcohol sales impact mental health in a post-Coronavirus world?
The Dangers of Binge Drinking
In order to understand how alcohol affects your mental health, it’s first important to understand the difference between binge drinking and alcoholism. It’s often easy to excuse the behavior of binge drinking. People tend to think it’s something done in college or at parties to “have a good time”.
But, binge drinking isn’t fun and games. It typically means having multiple drinks in the span of two hours. For men, that number is five, for women, it’s four. Binge drinkers consume so much alcohol in a short amount of time, usually with the goal of becoming inebriated quickly. Some of the most common signs of binge drinking include the following:
- Heavy consumption
- Commonly done in social settings
- A shorter period of drinking
- Not necessarily dependent on alcohol
Binge drinking is different from alcoholism. Someone who struggles with an alcohol addiction typically drinks in isolation, and it’s less about the quantity consumed and more about how frequently they drink. Alcoholics are also typically dependent on drinking, so they need to do it every day.
The interesting thing about the Coronavirus pandemic is that people might start out binge drinking in order to cope with some of the stress caused by the virus, but, binge drinking can lead to alcoholism if alcohol is continuously used to cope. Unfortunately, there are both short-term and long-term dangers of binge drinking:
- Loss of memory
- Impaired vision
- Slurred speech
- High blood pressure
- Inflammation of the lungs
Binge drinking doesn’t always have to be a gateway to alcoholism. But, in uncertain times like these when people are looking for a way to get through, the risk is greater for an addiction to develop.
How Alcohol Affects Mental Health
Alcohol does so much more than just affect the physical aspects of your body. First, alcohol affects your central nervous system. That impacts your ability to think and control your emotions. Because alcohol is a depressant, continued use can cause fluctuations in your mood. If you’ve ever felt really good one moment and really sad or angry the next while drinking, it’s due to the harm being done to your central nervous system.
Alcohol also uses up the serotonin in your brain, which is the hormone that helps to regulate your mood. Serotonin also contributes to feelings of happiness and can help to control anxiety. As alcohol depletes it, it’s easier to feel depressed, angry, or anxious. So, why would people turn to alcohol to help with feelings of anxiety or depression if it makes things worse?
The short-term effects of alcohol are really what most people are looking for when they use it as a coping mechanism. Alcohol can make it easy to “forget” about some of your worries for a while. It’s a form of self-medicating. While it can help to reduce some of the feelings of sadness or anxiety at the moment, it’s been shown that alcohol can actually worsen the symptoms of mental health issues like depression over time.
Because of that, people who use alcohol to self-medicate need to do it more frequently, and with larger quantities. That’s a common factor in how alcohol addictions are formed.
Addiction, Your Health, and Getting Help
Stress and concerns over the Coronavirus pandemic have caused a variety of different reactions and responses. One of those responses is the development or worsening of an addiction. Because alcohol is widely available and easy to get, it’s a simple target to reach for when people are dealing with uncertainty.
While the effects of this pandemic may be changing, it’s not completely gone. So, what can you do to preserve your mental health, fight against addiction, and get through the challenges of COVID-19 even after it “goes away”? Consider some of these steps to take positive action toward your mental health:
- Create a daily routine for yourself
- Ask others for help
- Help those most affected by the pandemic
- Practice self-care
- Remain in contact with the important people in your life
If you do find that you’re struggling with binge drinking or alcohol addiction due to COVID-19, it’s important to seek out treatment as soon as possible. You’re not alone in what you’re feeling, and you’re not alone in your struggles. As you now know, alcohol addiction can lead to a variety of different mental and physical health issues. In some cases, the depression exacerbated by regular alcohol use can even lead to thoughts of self-harm or suicide, especially if you feel as though you’re in a hopeless situation.
Contacting a treatment helpline, joining a support group, or talking to a therapist can help you to get through your battle with alcohol, no matter what your current situation may be. These are strange times that most people have never experienced before. It’s normal to want to find ways to cope. But, making your mental health a priority is the best thing you can do to get through the aftereffects of COVID-19 and move forward with your life in a healthy, positive way.