Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism: Anxiety in a Pandemic

Authors: Ashley Watson, MPH and Alexandria Patterson, MPH

People all across the world are facing the hardship of COVID-19, a pandemic that many countries were unprepared for and completely shocked by its severity. Stay-at-home order mandates were put into place around mid-March, and our sense of reality was lost. All nonessential businesses and schools were forced to close for an uncertain amount of time, resulting in a spike in unemployment, with over 30 million Americans filing since the start of the outbreak [1]. The decline of the economy is well underway.

Consequently, feelings of fear and anxiety may emerge in adults and children as COVID-19 continues to spread. Many adversities include new or more profound economic hardship, increased family disputes, feelings of isolation, and poor work-life balance. Individuals vary in their response to an outbreak based on their background, things that make one person different from another, and the community in which one resides [5]. The adverse reactions to stress can be more influential in individuals who are at higher risk of COVID-19 due to having a chronic illness, healthcare workers and first responders, and people with mental conditions such as substance abuse [5]. As we are living through unprecedented times, women, men, and children look for new ways to cope.

A commonly used coping strategy is alcohol. We know this because it is a not a new trend. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, twenty percent of people diagnosed with social anxiety disorder experience some type of alcohol abuse or dependence. Generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorders are also often connected to alcohol use, with researchers suggesting that in some instances anxiety symptoms are the result of alcohol withdrawal [3]. According to a study conducted at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, excessive drinking can make an individual more susceptible to anxiety and the experience of trauma, and subsequently, post-traumatic stress disorder [4].

Many women use alcohol to self-medicate when it comes to anxiety. Since alcohol is a depressant, many women consume it in order to reduce anxiety [2]. Initially, alcohol consumption can reduce anxiety. However, alcohol can also increase anxiety shortly after consumption. Furthermore, this increase in anxiety symptoms can persist for more than a day [6].

These problems can be exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lack of social interaction and extreme boredom can cause anxiety. This is often referred to as going “stir crazy.” Current marketing strategies and social expectations already support and encourage concepts like women drinking wine after a hard day. This has been greatly magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic. An example is the meme below that suggests the consumer should stock up on a shopping cart full of wine as part of their emergency pandemic preparation. This type of marketing is especially harmful to women who are anxious about potentially contracting COVID-19 and/or a myriad of other concerns. The uptick in virtual “happy hours” as a replacement for in-person socialization has also become a form of self-medication. These types of gatherings further convince women that alcohol is quelling their anxiety, when in reality much-needed social interaction is the more probable cause for decreased anxiety symptoms.

Source: Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC)

References

  1. 30 million have sought U.S. unemployment aid since COVID-19 hit. (2020, April 30). Retrieved from https://www.marketplace.org/2020/04/30/covid-19-us-unemployment-state-benefits/
  2. Ankrom, S. (2020, March 23). The Risks of Using Alcohol to Relieve Anxiety. Retrieved May 16, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/using-alcohol-to-relieve-anxiety-2584210
  3. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Abuse. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder/social-anxiety-and-alcohol-abuse.
  4. Heavy drinking rewires brain, increasing anxiety problem. UNC Health Talk. (2012, September 4). https://healthtalk.unchealthcare.org/heavy-drinking-rewires-brain-increasing-susceptibility-to-anxiety-problems/.
  5. Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19. (2020, April 30). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html
  6. Watkins, M. (2019, November 25). Anxiety and Alcohol: How They Are Linked. Retrieved from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/anxiety

2 thoughts on “Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism: Anxiety in a Pandemic

  1. I think the meme you posted really captures the concept of self-medication by means of wine, which we know is more prevalent among women!

    • Yes! With brands like “Emergency Drinking Beer” and “Mommy’s Little Helper”, it’s no surprise that women have been led to believe that they can self medicate with alcohol.

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