It might be tempting to drown your sorrows in alcohol when it feels like the world is falling apart, your financial security is evaporating and you’re suddenly confined to the house thanks to COVID-19.
Pubs and bars around the country have shut their doors. There’s been a huge rush at bottle shops, as well as rumours of a beer shortage. It’s enough to make you think that getting a bit (or extremely) drunk is a short-term survival tactic for many.
But is drinking your way through this crisis really the best thing to do?
If there’s one thing I learned from giving up alcohol 15 months ago, it’s that drinking dramatically exacerbated my anxiety and negatively affected my physical and mental health — the maintenance of which are now critical to getting through this mess we are in.
So, in the spirit of helping others, I’ve pulled together some alternative strategies and expert advice on why, as the coronavirus crisis escalates, you should seriously reconsider whether cracking open another bottle of wine is a good idea.
Alcohol affects your sleep quality
Trust me, you need your sleep right now.
Nicole Lee, an adjunct associate professor at the National Drug Research Institute, says it’s important for people to find strategies for coping with stress other than drinking after our “rough start to 2020”.
While alcohol might make you feel better temporarily, she says, over the medium to long-term it will increase your anxiety and potentially significantly disrupt your sleep.
“People who are already anxious and might have a drink to calm down … when they stop drinking, they feel even more anxious than before they started drinking,” Associate Professor Lee says.
While drinking might provide some short-term relief or even knock you out for a few hours, that mental stupor is not going to last through the night.
Do you want to risk waking up at 3:00am with the beginnings of a nasty hangover and a brain rattling with even more anxiety?
Lately I’ve been falling asleep emotionally sapped and waking up full of existential dread, but I’m thankful that I’m at least still sleeping soundly and not starting the day with a headache.
But what about the days, evenings, weekends at home?
As a highly social person who lives alone, the prospect of having to endure long stretches of physical distancing and being cooped up in my tiny apartment has already played havoc with my mind and had me glancing longingly into the bottle shop for the first time in months.
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Before the coronavirus crisis, experts say young people drank less — but that’s about to change, with people being removed from their normal day-to-day lives.
In the past, a couple of gins may have been a good tonic for this sudden loneliness, but I’m extremely wary of where that could lead — and with good reason, because drinking alone is a primary marker for growing dependence issues.
Su Naseby, a psychotherapist who specialises in substance abuse, says many of her clients started out drinking in social contexts and eventually moved on to drinking alone.
For many people, Ms Naseby says, drinking with others helps to restrict alcohol consumption because of feelings of shame or embarrassment that can result from overdoing it.
But drinking at home alone can take that barrier away, she says: “You’re sitting at home and there is nothing stopping you from being indulgent”.
Drinking can sabotage mental health, just as services are struggling
Current events notwithstanding, giving up alcohol was one of the best things I ever did for my mental health.
In general, I’m calmer, less anxious and my moods are stable most of the time.
Australia’s mental health services are already under significant strain, with many now providing only limited phone services, so keeping your mental health in optimal condition is important.
Professor Lee says while everyone is a little bit different in their approach to stress reduction, exercise is a great alternative activity.
“With the social distancing rules, we’re still able to get out and go for a walk or a jog or just get some fresh air,” she says.
“Also, things like meditation and yoga, if you’re into that, can be quite helpful.”
Hard as it might be, Ms Naseby recommends limiting time spent scouring for fresh COVID-19 information, or choosing just one reliable source for news.
I’ve also been trying to switch off my social feeds at least an hour before bed and put my racing brain to sleep with free meditation apps. It’s hard, but it really helps improve my sleep quality.
Alcohol can affect your physical health: practice self-care
Associate Professor Lee stresses that it’s important for people to be aware of the potential negative effects of alcohol on physical health, especially with the threat of highly contagious viruses floating around.
“If you can drink as little as possible, and particularly don’t increase your drinking during this time, you’re much more likely to … maintain your immune system and prevent any colds or flus or other viruses,” she says.
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As a recovered alcoholic of five years, Shanna Whan says her compromised immune system would collapse if she went back to drinking.
The founder of Sober in the Country, Ms Whan also struggles with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — the result of her former smoking addiction.
Having recognised that her anxiety over COVID-19 was already impacting her mental health, instead she is using the shutdown period to prioritise basic self-care.
“For me [that’s] exercise, sunshine, nutrition, rest, water, fresh air, moderation and faith,” she says.
Me too. I’ve been sorely missing the morning exercise routine I committed to when I quit drinking.
But I’ve found free online yoga and exercise classes and have started streaming them at appointed times so friends can join in, help each other stay motivated and remember to breathe.
Keep yourself busy and reach out for support
The good news is that you don’t need alcohol to keep socialising with friends and family, even while you are physically distanced from them.
Keeping a sober, clear head while you communicate may even have the added effect of deepening your relationships.
While we already desperately miss congregating in bars, restaurants and pubs, my friends and I have been catching up online over cups of tea to offer each other support.
Your questions on coronavirus answered:
We’ve also been sharing interesting things to watch, read, make and do in a thriving Facebook group I set up to provide a temporary distraction from the hectic world outside.
If you don’t have a strong circle of friends or family to lean on, there are many online groups for people wanting to maintain sobriety that stream free meetings — such as the Untoxicated (Booze Free Fun and Friendship) Support Group on Facebook and She Recovers on MeetUp, to name just two.
Ms Naseby says keeping busy and productive will help reduce the temptation to drink, but also potentially deliver a much-needed endorphin boost.
“I’m working from home talking to clients … but I’m loving the fact that I have an opportunity to sit down and work on a writing project I’ve had sitting around for ages,” she says.
“It’s a great opportunity to get out and dust off some of the projects we’ve got sitting around, do something a little proactive. Completing unfinished tasks, something that’s meaningful to us, that’s going to give us a relaxed, endorphin, dopamine kind of buzz.”