Stress, home and/or job loss, money worries, boredom, loneliness, “cabin fever” as a result of lockdown and social distancing restrictions, uncertainty about the future … any of these factors, not to mention several combined, have provided a perfect storm during the COVID crisis for escalating consumption of alcohol.
And Australians are drinking alcohol, a depressant drug, more frequently during the pandemic than before, a report from The Australian National University (ANU) has shown. Once a social lubricant, it seems for some alcohol is now being used as a means of dealing with the fact we can’t be social much at all; at least as much as they’ve been used to.
The study focuses on self-reported drinking frequency and level of alcohol consumption, comparing it with consumption before COVID. It found drinking was “slightly higher for males” and “substantially higher for females”, according to co-author Professor Nicholas Biddle, from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.
“For males, a strong predictor for increased drinking was because of a loss of job or decline in working hours. Boredom was their second-biggest motivating factor. For females, a strong predictor for increased drinking was having a child-caring role,”
he said. “For both sexes, but particularly males, psychological distress was a key driver.”
The main reason overall given for an increase in drinking, for both males and females, was spending more time at home.
Try to make as many decisions around alcohol as you can in advance – what and how much you’ll have. Avoid the temptation to order out of habit or social norms, and love what it is you drink. If you don’t love it, don’t drink it.
What is perhaps more troubling though, is that the increase in the frequency of alcohol consumption was much higher among those males and females who when asked prior to the spread of COVID-19 said that they drank relatively frequently,” Professor Biddle said.
With the approaching festive season, and more “excuses” to imbibe, people worried about how much they are consuming might consider the practice of “mindful drinking” if they don’t want to give up altogether.
Mindful drinking is the practice of being aware of why and how much alcohol you drink – for instance, pausing before each new drink to ask yourself whether it supports you – and may help people avoid binge drinking. It’s about changing the conversation with yourself.
Another principle is to try to make as many decisions around alcohol as you can in advance – what and how much you’ll drink. Also to make your own choices when drinking in a social situation. In a group, it’s often easy to say, “I’ll have what they’re having.” Avoid the temptation to order alcohol out of habit or social norms, and love what it is you decide to you drink. If you don’t love it, don’t drink it.
The concept was popularised by CLUB SÖDA, an alcohol-free social club that brings together people interested in intentionally cutting back on their alcohol consumption.
It often leads to healthier relationships with alcohol and less consumption. However, mindful drinking is not for people with alcohol use issues, where abstinence and seeking support is recommended.
“Alcohol, like any other drug, can be harmful. In fact, alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive drug in Australia and one of the most harmful: alcohol causes more chronic diseases and is linked to more deaths than many illicit drugs,” according to the Australian Drug and Alcohol Foundation (ADF), which for more than 60 years has worked to inspire positive change and deliver evidence-based approaches to minimise alcohol and drug harm.
According to the ADF, 4186+ Australians every year die from alcohol-related injuries, illness and accidents, and 144,000 are hospitalised.
The cost to the community from alcohol-related harm is estimated to exceed $15.3 billion.
While there is no “safe” level of drinking, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends that:
• Children and young people under the age of 18 years avoid alcohol altogether; also women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding
• Adults drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than four standard drinks on any day to reduce the lifetime risk of alcohol-related disease, injury and dysfunction. These include risk of bowel, breast, throat and mouth cancer, liver and cardiovascular disease, stroke, mental health disorders, falls/accidental injuries, motor vehicle accidents, alcohol poisoning and sexual dysfunction, such as difficulty achieving or maintaining and erection.
ADF’s TIPS FOR MINIMISING HARM FROM ALCOHOL
• Drink water or other non-alcohol beverages between alcoholic drinks
• Avoid drinking in rounds with friends, as you may end up drinking more than planned
• Order smaller serves of beer, cider and spirits rather than pints or double serves
• Don’t allow others to top up your glass if you’re sharing a bottle of wine, as you may lose track of how much you consume
• Avoid high-alcohol content beverages, such as stronger beers or wines, and spirits
• Eat some food before and while drinking, to slow your drinking pace and slow the absorption of alcohol
• Occupy yourself while drinking to reduce the amount you’re consuming: play pool, sing karaoke, dance, talk to friends
• Avoid combining alcohol with other drugs, including pharmaceutical and illicit drugs
• Consuming alcohol with other depressant drugs such as benzodiazepines, GHB, ketamine or opioids can increase the risk of overdose and cause loss of consciousness, nausea and vomiting. Combining it with stimulants such as cocaine, amphetamines or MDMA can also be dangerous, as both alcohol and stimulants can cause dehydration. Further, some stimulants may mask the effects of alcohol, leading people to drink more.