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Experts urge those feeling stress to seek ways that don’t involve alcohol to cope with anxiety. visualspace / Getty Images
  • Researchers say binge drinking, especially among women, has increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • They say that stress, anxiety, and isolation are contributing to the issue.
  • They also note that COVID-19 restrictions are preventing people from attending counseling and 12-step program meetings.
  • Experts recommend people eat healthy, exercise, and get sufficient sleep during these stressful times.

Most U.S. states designated liquor stores and other alcoholic beverage outlets as “essential businesses” that could remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And increasing numbers of Americans appear to see drinking as an essential part of their COVID-19 coping mechanism, too.

Binge drinking in the United States has spiked considerably since the pandemic began, according to a new study from researchers at the RAND Corporation.

Women, in particular, are taking part in more unhealthy drinking behavior, according to data on 6,000 Americans collected using the RAND American Life Panel.

The survey found that frequency of drinking — measured in days per month that alcohol was consumed — increased 14 percent overall as well as 17 percent among women.

“On average, alcohol was consumed one day more per month by 3 of 4 adults,” researchers reported.

“We didn’t pick up significant increases in overall drinking, but we found that drinking is being packed into binge episodes,” Michael S. Pollard, PhD, the study’s lead researcher and a RAND Corporation sociologist, told Healthline. “For people who reported changes, there were big changes.”

Pollard added that the research provides evidence that anecdotes about heavier drinking during COVID-19 “are real.”

Researchers said heavy drinking rose 41 percent among women, noting that 1 of every 5 women in their survey had heavily consumed alcohol at least 1 additional day per month compared with the previous year.

“That’s probably the most startling finding,” Pollard said.

Reports of physical, social, intrapersonal, impulsive, and interpersonal problems related to drinking also rose 39 percent among the women surveyed by RAND, “which is indicative of increased alcohol-related problems independent of consumption level for nearly 1 in 10 women,” the researchers said.

“In addition to a range of negative physical health associations, excessive alcohol use may lead to or worsen existing mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, which may themselves be increasing during COVID-19,” the researchers concluded.

Increases in drinking also self-reported across most demographic categories, but especially among people ages 30 to 59 (19 percent) and non-Hispanic white people (10 percent).

Data for the report was collected in late May and early June, after most U.S. states had implemented COVID-19 physical distancing protocols.

According to the Blue Cross Blue Shield COVID-19 National Pulse Survey, overall alcohol consumption has risen 23 percent since the pandemic began.

And a recent survey by The Recovery Village found that 55 percent of respondents reported an increase in past-month alcohol consumption. About 18 percent reported a significant increase, while another 36 percent reported an increase in substance use.

Of these, 53 percent said they were trying to cope with stress, 39 percent were trying to relieve boredom, and 32 percent were trying to cope with mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.

Jared A., a recovering alcoholic from Oakland Park, Florida, who takes part in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, told Healthline that the social isolation associated with the pandemic has been particularly difficult for people in recovery from alcohol use disorder.

“Twelve-step programs encourage service to others, making amends for harms done, admitting when we are wrong, and confessing our shortcomings to others,” he said. “Most of these are unobtainable in the isolation created by COVID-19.”

Physical distancing rules have also hampered the ability for people in recovery to attend AA meetings, Jared said.

“Meetings are a place for newcomers to learn the steps and meet sponsors, a place where people make friends and gain support through the fellowship,” he said.

“With most localities closing meetings, this important tool people depend on simply vanished. Online replacements became available, but to most of us they aren’t the same as face-to-face meetings,” he added.

Dr. Dean Drosnes, medical director of Pennsylvania-based Caron Treatment Centers, told Healthline that while his program saw an increase in admissions after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, COVID-19 has presented unique challenges compared to past disasters.

“The difference with COVID is the quarantine element,” he said. “Isolation, the lack of structure, and the inability to turn to one’s healthy coping options… due to the pandemic makes people incredibly vulnerable to distress.”

Economic turmoil, unemployment, disruption of home routines, and an unsettled political climate have all contributed to fear and stress that can trigger problem drinking, experts said.

“Combine anxiety, depression, and uncertainty with an ability to have booze delivered to your home via an app in less than an hour, and you’ve got a perfect pathway to increased alcohol consumption, and, for some, alcohol dependence,” Jeffrey L. Reynolds, PhD, president and CEO of the Family & Children’s Association in Long Island, New York, told Healthline.

“Wine memes flooded social media sites, virtual happy hours started earlier and earlier in the afternoon, and the ‘quarantini’ became the pandemic’s official beverage. At the same time, here in New York, hospital alcohol detox units closed to make way for COVID patients, and drug/alcohol treatment centers closed or operated at reduced capacity,” he said.

“Many people are realizing now just how much their drinking accelerated in the last 6 months, how it’s impacting their health and mental health, and they are struggling to get back to the office on a daily basis,” Reynolds added.

One potential consequence of the “downstream health effects” of heavy drinking, including heart disease and respiratory disorders, can be a poorer outlook for those who do contract the new coronavirus, added Pollard.

Drosnes said “mom and teacher stress” could conspire to make alcohol misuse even worse as the school year begins with many children staying home and attending classes remotely.

“There’s no dividing line between motherhood and work,” Drosnes said, adding that Caron has seen an increase in admissions for relapse into alcohol use disorder since the pandemic struck.

He said he expects more people to seek treatment as they recognize the toll being exacted by their drinking in the coming months.

“There’s been a journey from structure into chaos, and for many, alcohol is a way to deal with that,” he said.

“Our lives have changed so dramatically that some feel the need to reward themselves for working at home, taking care of children around the clock, and having very limited sources for pleasure, so that alcohol by default is used more often,” added Moe Gelbart, PhD, director of practice development for California-based Community Psychiatry and founder of the Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California.

To cope with COVID-19 without misusing alcohol, Lori Ryland, PhD, chief clinical officer of Pinnacle Treatment Centers, recommended healthy stress-reducing (and mind-distracting) activities, such as going for a walk, reading a book, or doing a project around the house.

“There are a lot of healthy ways to cope without turning to alcohol,” Drosnes said. “First and foremost, I encourage everyone to develop a healthy routine — which begins with getting enough sleep, waking up at a regular time, eating nutritious meals throughout the day, and getting plenty of exercise. It’s easier to make constructive choices when you have structure and you’re well rested.

“Additionally, it’s important to establish realistic social support and connection during this time. If you’re in recovery, that could include an online or socially distanced and masked 12-step meeting.

“If you’re not in recovery, you can still set up regular calls and virtual meet-ups with friends and loved ones, or connect with people in person following safe, social distancing guidelines (wear your mask).

“Finally, I encourage people to take a walk in nature, which can be very healing, and support a spiritual practice,” Drosnes said.