The impact of the coronavirus and the stay-at-home orders issued in March continues, with concerns about risk of infection, finances, loss of employment, remote working and home schooling resulting in overwhelming stress levels.
For the majority of Americans, a glass of wine or a “quarantini” has been a way to unwind during the last few months, but for many others, an increase in alcohol consumption prompts concern.
A recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of U.S. adults revealed that 40.9% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, and that for 13%, relief is coming in the form of a bottle.
An increase in alcohol consumption is a common coping mechanism during stressful life events such as social isolation, unemployment, a divorce, an economic recession, a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.
A research team at Washington State University added COVID-19 to the list of reasons for increased alcohol consumption in work published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. Researchers surveyed more than 900 twin pairs between March and April to compare their levels of stress and anxiety at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The team’s results showed a 14% increase in alcohol consumption post-COVID, with an uptick reported by participants experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety. Even within a couple of weeks of the shelter-in-place orders, the level of stress and anxiety many survey respondents suffered was sufficient for alcohol to emerge as a coping mechanism.
The lead author on the study, Ally Avery, stated that though the team expected to see an increase in alcohol consumption as a consequence of the stress of the pandemic, they did not expect the change to occur so quickly.
Alcohol is known to suppress the body’s natural stress response and emotional memory, and with levels of stress and anxiety as high as they are currently, it’s no surprise that alcohol use has increased.
The survey results are consistent with a Nielsen marketing report that noted an increase of 54% in national sales of alcohol at the end of March and online alcohol orders up 262% from 2019.
The increase in alcohol consumption is occurring the world over. Research in China and Hong Kong showed a rise in alcohol consumption as a consequence of the pandemic, though at rates much lower than the U.S., at 6% and 18% respectively.
The British showed the greatest boost in alcohol consumption, with 21% of the population reporting an increase in alcohol use since the pandemic began.
Concerns about the possible impact of increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic have reached the World Health Organization, which in May warned of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.
Excessive alcohol use can exacerbate existing mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression, which are already on the rise.
The long-term effects of the pandemic and the increase in alcohol consumption remain to be seen. Santa Clara County has recently moved into the orange tier, loosening restrictions on activities, restaurants and other businesses.
But if the latest national and global infection rates are any indication, the shelter-in-place orders will likely continue.
Rita Hitching is a local researcher and teacher who writes on teen brain development. She uses the latest neuroscience data to explain how the teen body and brain develop and publishes those explanations on her website, teenbrain.info.