In the early days of the coronavirus stay-at-home orders, it kind of took on a sense of one big vacation party. People were suddenly thrust into isolation with little time to prepare psychologically—or practically—for the adventure that could become a much more enduring situation than anyone had anticipated. At the outset, back in mid-March, there was a frenzied sense of gathering the basics before the stores ran out. But it wasn’t until it became clear that the lockdowns were going to last months, not days, that a spike in more alcohol drinking and coronavirus case counts became simpatico.
It isn’t hard to grasp why people in quarantine might gravitate toward the bottle. Tensions were high, as we sat glued to our sets watching the global map light up in deep shades of red and burgundy. The feeling of having no sense of control over something so scary and so huge naturally resulted in more alcohol drinking, and coronavirus fear escalated in kind.
Whether the boost in alcohol consumption started due to fear of the unknown, or just a good excuse to party, the end result of excessive drinking may be devastating. To one degree or another most of the nation has been stuck at home with little to keep themselves occupied outside of binge watching and beer. Newly established patterns of increased alcohol consumption during coronavirus may result in newly diagnosed alcohol use disorders at the other side of this.
Awareness is your friend, when looking for ways to set boundaries and avoid acquiring a drinking problem during the pandemic. Being cognizant of drinking behaviors, aware of what triggers them, and admitting if you are displaying the signs of an alcohol use disorder can make the difference between experiencing a short-lived uptick in alcohol use, or ending the quarantine with an alcohol addiction.
Problems Caused by Excessive Drinking During the Coronavirus
Whether it’s Zoom “quarantini” hours or sitting in the dark sipping whiskey, people who are stuck at home are engaging in higher levels of alcohol drinking, and coronavirus offers them a good excuse. With few other options on a Friday night, it’s easy to see why the living room becomes the new speak easy.
However, there is one reality that cannot be escaped, no matter how much of a buzz a person gets on, and that is that alcohol is extremely bad for us. The substance itself actually acts like a poison in our bloodstream, injuring our livers and causing myriad health issues. Mostly, though, the fact is that alcohol is extremely addictive, and alcohol addiction is a deadly progressive disease.
Some of the very real problems stemming from excessive drinking during the pandemic include:
- Aggression, domestic violence
- Accidents and injuries
- Mood swings
- Impulsive or high risk behaviors
- Neglecting to complete work-at-home assignments
- Decreases the body’s immune system and the ability to fight Covid-19
Why do People Turn to Alcohol?
Because of alcohols relaxing effects, it makes perfect sense that it would be an attractive panacea during times of stress. Alcohol use disorder often co-occurs with mental health disorders, especially depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. The quieting effects of alcohol can become a source of self-medicating the discomforts of a mental health issue.
But there are other reasons, some still not clearly understood, as to why some individuals gravitate toward alcohol abuse. Some of these factors include:
- Genetics. Some individuals have a family history of addiction, indicating a genetic predisposition towards developing the problem.
- Began using alcohol, drugs or nicotine at an early age
- History of physical or sexual abuse, trauma exposure, or growing up in a home where family members engaged in substance abuse
- Brain chemistry
- Personality traits, such as gravitating toward high-risk behaviors, impulsivity, or having a mental health disorder
There are also new scientific discoveries that are beginning to shed more light on the role of specific genes in determining who will develop an alcohol problem. A study out of Sweden sheds light on how a certain group of rats gravitated toward alcohol instead of following the majority of rats towards the artificial sweetener, Saccharine. The study found that the rats that opted for the alcohol had a reduced expression of a particular gene, called GAT-3, which controls the neurotransmitter GABA and influenced the attraction to alcohol.
In humans, postmortem tissue of individuals who were alcoholic, it was discovered that they had less GAT-3 in the amygdala area that the brains of people who were not addicted to alcohol.
“This is one of the relatively rare cases where we find an interesting change in our animal models and the same change in the brains of people with alcohol addiction,” stated Dayne Mayfield, one of the researchers out of University of Texas that worked with the Swedish team.
What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) covers the diverse spectrum of alcohol abuse—from binge drinking in early years to excessive drinking that causes negative consequences in daily life to full-blown alcohol dependency. Compulsive drinking that results in alcoholism has significant negative consequences for the individual and their families.
For a diagnosis of AUD an individual must have any two of the eleven criteria present within a 12-month period. The number of the criteria met will determine the severity of the AUD. The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria include:
In the past year have you:
- Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
- More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
- Spent a lot of time drinking, being sick, or getting over a hangover?
- Experienced cravings to drink?
- Found that drinking—or being sick from drinking—often interfered with taking care of your home or family?
- Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
- Given up or cut back on activities that were important to you in order to drink?
- More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your risk of injury?
- Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Have you had a memory blackout?
- Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect your want, or found that your usual number of drinks had less effect than before?
- Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating?
Answering yes to 2-3 of these items is considered a mild AUD, 4-5 is considered a moderate AUD, and 6 or more yes answers indicates a severe AUD.
Quarantine Increases Risk of Co-Occurring Alcoholism and Depression
Co-occurring substance use disorders with mood disorders are very common in normal times, but becoming more prevalent during the coronavirus crisis. Alcohol addiction when coupled with depression can be particularly challenging to treat. According to data reported in the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, it is estimated that about 9.2 million of the 20 million adults who had a substance use disorder also had a major depressive episode. Of that group, the most prevalent substance used was alcohol. Of that segment, only 7.7% of those with a dual diagnosis of major depression and alcohol use disorder received specialized dual diagnosis treatment.
It is crucial that someone battling both alcoholism and depression get the appropriate dual diagnosis treatment. Increased alcohol drinking and the coronavirus stressors have significantly ramped up the need for dual diagnosis interventions. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that in 30% of suicides, blood alcohol levels were above the legal limit and that 50% of those suicide deaths also involved major depression. Alcohol is, after all, a depressant, and will only compound the effects of a major depressive episode.
Getting Help for an Alcohol Use Disorder During the Pandemic
Residential treatment provides the most intensive approach to alcohol recovery treatment. During the pandemic, addiction treatment facilities were designated as essential services, allowing residential programs to continue to operate. Guidelines published by the American Society of Addiction Medicine provide safety precautions that are tailored to residential rehab facilities.
To maintain safe treatment facilities, rehabs have adopted these precautions:
- Screening (or testing) for COVID-19
- Do thorough cleaning and sterilization procedures multiple times per day
- Isolate clients who may later show symptoms of COVID-19
- Limit or prohibit visitors and have them use PPE
- Provide PPE for staff
With these measures in place, residential rehabs are able to continue providing essential services to individuals in need of timely treatment for an alcohol use disorder.
Fortunately, online A.A. meetings, free for those who utilize them, are available now using Zoom Internet technology. Now, those in recovery who desire to connect with a recovery community can do that without even getting into a car. While online A.A. meetings are not new, during the pandemic the Zoom platform is making them available far and wide, along with other recovery groups like SMART Recovery.
Elevation Behavioral Health Leading Provider of Dual Diagnosis Treatment
Elevation Behavioral Health provides comprehensive dual diagnosis treatment for individuals struggling with alcohol use disorder and a co-occurring substance use disorder. Our luxury accommodations and stunning setting help to provide comfort and healing while engaging in the comprehensive treatment program. Our campus has been completely configured for safe distancing and cleanliness through the pandemic. Client safety is our top priority. For more information about the program, please contact Elevation Behavioral Health today at (888) 561-0868.