As discussed in last week’s blog on this topic, research from both alcohol sales data and surveys of the public indicate that alcohol consumption has increased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Survey respondents reported drinking during this time for a variety of reasons including boredom and stress and as a way to address mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression. While the use of alcohol to self-medicate during these difficult times is not an unexcepted finding, individuals may be surprised to know that alcohol consumption, especially in large quantities, may also have some unintended consequences for both their physical and mental health during the pandemic.
Even in the best of times, drinking substantial quantities of alcohol can increase the risk of many physical ailments (i.e., liver disease, obesity, breast cancer, and cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attacks) and can negatively impact mental health issues (i.e., depression and suicide) as well1. During COVID-19, the risks related to excessive alcohol consumption are amplified based on the common targets of the virus and the behaviors necessary to stay safe during the pandemic. Information released by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) suggests that excessive alcohol consumption causes inflammation and interferes with the immune system’s ability to respond to viral and bacterial infections, likely including COVID-19. It also negatively impacts lung function by damaging the lining of the lungs and has been associated with respiratory distress. The Director of NIAAA warns that “impaired immune system function and an increased susceptibility to respiratory illness could contribute to more severe COVID-19 and greater risk of mortality”2.
The more immediate effects of excessive drinking may also put individuals at greater risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. A hallmark of alcohol intoxication is impaired judgement and a loss of inhibition. Individuals are expected to exert substantial self-control during this period of social distancing and societal restrictions that require them to make good decisions about their exposure risk. Excessive drinking may lead to unnecessary risk and exposures based on bad judgement and rash decisions, according to information shared by the American Heart Association1.
Social distancing and restrictions on interactions may impact more than the physical health of individuals who have a history of excessive alcohol consumption. It may also put their sobriety at risk. Individuals who had previously been practicing alcohol reduction or abstinence face a variety of challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stress regarding fears about their health or a job loss, substantial disruption to their normal routines, and the effects of social isolation and a loss of social support could endanger their sobriety. As with many other medical and mental health conditions, access to traditional treatment services like provider visits and support groups may be limited during the pandemic2, inserting an additional barrier to new and ongoing care for excessive alcohol use.
While the above information paints a troublesome picture of the risks and barriers associated with the noted increases in alcohol consumption during the pandemic, there are also bright spots and examples of perseverance and flexibility to be found during this time. This past summer, I had a delivery scheduled to my home and went out to meet the delivery person (masked and socially-distanced, of course) when he arrived. As I approached, he covered the mouthpiece of the phone he was using and said “Hey, I’m sorry man, but I’ve got to stay on this call. I’m in an AA meeting and I’m just listening right now, but I really need to keep up with my program.” So we worked around his call, unloading the equipment as he continued to engage with the rest of his group who had all found a way to address at least one of the obstacles mounted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It may take a little “out of the box” thinking, but as providers we can help our clients to avoid or address the concerns around alcohol consumption and to manage the new normal of COVID-19.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Jeffrey Cook, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and retired Navy Veteran, serving as a Director for Training and Education at the Center for Deployment Psychology. In this capacity, Dr. Cook oversees multiple training programs and research studies in support of CDP’s mission to support the disseminations and implementation of evidence-based treatments to military-connected populations.