Excessive drinking during lockdown has had serious long-term health consequences, but we can manage our drinking habits, says psychotherapist Noel McDermott.
Every indication is that for a significant sector of the UK and the world, the national lockdown became one long binge. The public health consequences of this binge were felt in the lingering rise of domestic violence cases across the UK. We have sadly seen, this week, a significant rise in alcohol dependence, and other health issues.
Binge drinking is when we drink a lot of alcohol in one sitting and/or when we drink to get drunk. The NHS guidelines classify binge drinking when men have drunk eight units in one sitting, or for women six units. To give you a measure of what that looks like, three pints of medium strength lager (5%) is nine units or two large glasses (250ml) of 12% wine.
Even drinking at this level your body and mind are already under pressure, with your liver and cardiovascular system having to process that much harder, and your mental health as alcohol produces anxiety and depression. Other dangers of binge drinking include being at greater risk of having an accident, problematic breathing and the fear that you can pass out and choke on your own vomit. These risks are present even in one episode of bingeing and further increase incrementally with regular bingeing.
Binge drinking is not the same as being alcohol dependent or an alcoholic. In fact, most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent and do not drink in a chronic dependent way, a fact that can mask the problematic nature of their drinking. Binge drinking is by far a much more significant issue than alcohol dependence and alcoholism, although it can regularly lead to dependence, as dependence is partly inherited and partly about how we drink.
The coronavirus pandemic, bingeing epidemic
Studies in the US show binge drinking was a serious issue even before the pandemic and lockdown and was associated with a number of very serious problems including accidents, foetal alcohol syndrome, chronic disease such as high blood pressure, liver and heart disease, various cancers, and also memory and learning issues.
These alcohol related issues affect men more as there has always been a gap between alcohol consumption in men versus women and it’s been shown that more women tend to opt for abstinence. Some studies have shown a narrowing in the gap between alcohol consumption across the sexes, especially so in younger generations.
"Prior to the pandemic and lockdown, binge drinking was already a significant public health problem with 10% of the drinking population defined as binge drinkers. Sadly there is every indication the problem has become worse."
We tend to drink more during stressful times, and these have been and are still very stressful times. With continuing fears around the virus and the economy, a significant proportion of regular drinkers worldwide have increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic. Sales of alcohol increased by 67% during lockdown compared to sales of food in supermarkets which rose by 43%. Whilst the retail sector as a whole did taken a significant hit, sales of alcohol did in many ways come to the sectors’ rescue by helping to artificially buoy the sector.
This however is not a blip, as the increase in sales have been sustained for several months with an increase in July of 41%. While pubs are also finding that their sales are improving with the binge continuing from home and into the bars, although without a drop off in sales from supermarkets and other shops.
This then sets the scene for a very significant rise in the issues we see associated with problematic drinking and the risk is highest for those who were regular drinkers prior to the pandemic. We can though do something about it as we can reduce our alcohol consumption, and when we do drink, do it in a safer and healthier way.
The single biggest thing anyone can do to reduce the harm to themselves and others from their drinking is to realise the amount that you are putting away. Study after study shows all drinkers consistently under-report how much they drink, which in itself is not strange as alcohol distorts our perception of reality.
It’s a good idea if worried, to record your drinking using a unit calculator or drinks tracker, the NHS have a very helpful app called Drinkaware. Which will provide you with an accurate record of your consumption so you can ensure that you stay below the binge drinking levels, and within the weekly recommended amount of 21 units. These app-based trackers help you by setting up alerts, helping you develop reduction plans when you are drinking too much.
Often the key to managing drinking is having better mental health hygiene and fitness. This is because problematic drinking most often starts off as an attempt to manage psychological distress. Following good mental health practice involves a range of easy practices such as: going to bed and getting up at a reasonable time, cutting out late night stimulants, including alcohol which interrupts sleep; eating healthily and hydrating, regular exercise, expressing to friend and family how you are feeling, organising fun activities, learning to meditate, and learning basic CBT tools so to challenge negative thoughts and spot unhelpful thinking styles.
My advice post-lockdown would be, drink infrequently rather than regularly and don’t drink to get drunk, have drink free days, get a proper measure for your drinks and pour yourself small measures, and use low or no alcohol beers, wines and spirits.