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A new study found that during COVID-19 lockdowns, alcohol use dramatically increased among those who were considered binge drinkers. JGalione/Getty Images
  • A new study has found that the stress of pandemic lockdowns led to increased drinking among those who were considered binge drinkers.
  • Non-binge drinkers didn’t experience this effect.
  • Stress is among many factors associated with binge drinking.
  • Some people may be able to use self-help strategies to reduce their drinking to a more healthy level. Others will need professional help through counseling or therapy in order to change their behavior.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub and follow our live updates page for the most recent information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a new study, binge drinking tends to increase the longer people are at home in lockdown.

The stress associated with losing income and employment, as well the increased social isolation may be to blame, lead study author Sitara Weerakoon, MPH, a doctoral candidate at UTHealth School of Public Health said.

She explained that these types of stressors have been associated with increased drinking.

Those with a history of mental health problems may be at even greater risk, said Weerakoon.

Weerakoon and her team did a survey including almost 2,000 U.S. people over the age of 18.

The survey was conducted from mid-March to mid-April 2020, when many places began to issue stay-at-home orders related to the pandemic.

The team used the information gleaned from the survey to place each person in a category of binge drinker, non-binge drinker, or non-drinker.

The researchers found that about 34 percent of the participants reported binge drinking during the pandemic.

In addition, binge drinkers reported increased alcohol consumption during this time, compared to their drinking habits prior to the stay-at-home orders.

Non-binge drinkers didn’t report any changes in their consumption patterns, drinking about the same amount of alcohol as before the pandemic.

The researchers found that the odds of heavy alcohol consumption among binge drinkers rose by 19 percent for each added week of lockdown.

They also found that the odds of increased drinking for binge drinkers was more than twice that of people who weren’t binge drinkers: 60 percent versus 28 percent.

Those with either depression or a history of depression were especially at risk.

Weerakoon said that binge drinking may lead to alcohol use disorder in the long run, which can then lead to health problems.

Her hope is that the public will turn to healthier ways to cope with stress, like exercise, sleep, meditation, creative pursuits, or working with a professional counselor.

Kenneth Leonard, PhD, director of the Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo, said, “There are many different factors associated with binge drinking.”

“Adverse childhood experiences and parental alcohol problems are associated with binge drinking,” he explained. “Those who start drinking at a younger age and those who smoke or use illegal drugs are also more likely to engage in binge drinking.”

“Among personality factors, impulsivity, extraversion, and negative emotions (like anxiety and depression) are associated with binge drinking,” he added.

He also said that individuals who believe that alcohol improves social occasions or alleviates stress and negative moods, and people who use alcohol to cope are more likely to be binge drinkers.

“Having friends or romantic partners who are binge drinkers is associated with binge drinking,” he said.

Leonard said that moderate drinking, for men, is drinking no more than 15 drinks per week and no binge drinking.

For women, the limit is 7 drinks per week, with no binge drinking.

Binge drinking is defined as drinking 5 or more drinks in a 2-hour period for men.

For women, it’s 4 or more drinks in that same 2-hour period.

Leonard noted that going over the limit on a regular basis is potentially hazardous and unhealthy.

“Some behaviors that may reflect a problem include frequently drinking more than you plan, or drinking at times or occasions when you had not intended to drink,” said Leonard.

“Having problems with friends or romantic partners because of your drinking, or problems with your job or school work can also be an indication of a problem,” he added.

He further pointed to a checklist from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism which can help you identify if drinking has become a problem.

Leonard said that many people can make changes on their own to curb their drinking.

They might be able to set limits on when or how much they drink. They might also be able to regulate their consumption by alternating between alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, eating before drinking, or stopping after a certain number of drinks.

These steps can help reduce how much they drink and reduce their risk of facing dangerous or unpleasant consequences, he said.

If a person tries these measures but is continuing to have problems associated with their drinking, Leonard said a more formal self-help program might be in order.

One such program that has scientific support, he said, is a program called “Guided Self Change,” which helps people analyze their alcohol problem and formulate a plan for how to change.

Another intervention called “motivational interviewing” may be useful as well.

This counseling technique involves a nonjudgmental collaboration between the practitioner and the client in order to draw upon a person’s own inner resources for change.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on recognizing and changing habitual negative thinking and maladaptive behaviors, can also be useful, Leonard said.