Stress, Anxiety, Alcohol and Coronavirus:

Covid-19 and the impacts from it have impacted upon all us in many ways. With lockdowns and local restrictions (such as the three tier approach), all of us have had to adapt and make changes to our behaviours. There are some things that we are prohibited from doing, some that are allowed but are now set up differently to how they used to be, and all of us need to be vigilant and mindful of social distancing, wearing masks and hand washing.

As I've written about before, there is a wealth of evidence about how coronavirus has impacted upon our mental health, particularly anxiety, stress and worry. As well as the general fears and anxiety about jobs, money, education, restricted social interaction and so on, there is also the fear of contracting the coronavirus and the potential health and other consequences that could come from this (coronaphobia).

One thing that many clients, particularly those with anxiety, have told me about is their increase in alcohol drinking. Of course, many people use alcohol to unwind and relax and over the last ten years I've helped many people who struggled with binge drinking or excessive drinking to take back control over their alcohol use. Yet it does seem that many people, through this coronavirus pandemic, may have been drinking more to help them to deal with things and to try and physically and mentally escape and relax.

Whilst in my younger (not so long ago...!) days I used to drink a bit, but these days I rarely have any alcohol. I find it makes me feel rough and lethargic the next day, and it's not nice trying to get up at 5.30am for bootcamp or a run as it is!

So beyond the number of people telling me of their anxiety and alcohol use during the coronavirus pandemic, what does the science tell us about it?

Stress, Anxiety and Alcohol

A study publshed at the end of last month sought to examine if stress and anxiety were associated with changes in alcohol use during the Covid-19 pandemic. As mentioned above, the pandemic has impacted upon us all and it's possible that the restrictions and the coronavirus have increased anxiety and stress which has then led to alcohol being used as a coping tool.

The study, by Avery et al (Stress, Anxiety, and Change in Alcohol Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings Among Adult Twin Pairs, 2020), used a sample of adult twins to control for genetic and shared environmental factors when looking at the alcohol - mental health relationship.

In their study, they found that about 14% of the respondents reported an increase in alcohol use and they found an association between both stress and anxiety and increased alcohol use, where twins with higher levels of stress and anxiety were more likely to report an increase in alcohol consumption. Their findings "suggest that individuals’ mental health may be associated with changes in alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic".

Whilst the researchers noted that alcohol use may be an effective coping strategy in the short term, they also highlighted how persistent increased alcohol consumption may turn into problematic behaviours, such as alcohol dependence and/or abuse. That is, a few drinks may help with some stress and anxiety relief but it can turn into a more problematic habit or dependence that can cause many other issues in your life. This is the sort of problem that people often seek my help with.

Perhaps unexpectedly in this study, those who reduced their drinking also had higher levels of stress and anxiety, suggesting that any change in alcohol use may be associated with mental health issues. 

"Results from the current study suggest that individuals’ mental health may be associated with changes in alcohol use during this stressful time as people navigate through the COVID19 pandemic."

So this study tends to suggest that a change in alcohol consumption may be a response to mental health issues during the pandemic. Another recently published study looked not just at alcohol and stress, but at the broader question of whether Covid-19 anxiety and worry were associated with the use of substances (such as alcohol, cigarettes and cannabis) as a coping mechanism.

 

stress anxiety alcohol coronavirus

 

Covid-19 Stress and Worry and Substance Use

Rogers et al (Psychological factors associated with substance use initiation during the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020), studied whether COVID-19 related worry and fear were associated with substance use as a coping mechanism. As they point out in their research, increases in mental health symptoms and disorders, including depression, anxiety, stress and worry, have been observed since the outset of the pandemic.

Particularly in this study they looked at how COVID-19- related worry and fear differed between those who initiated substance use during the COVID-19 outbreak, those who used substances prior to the outbreak, and those who abstained across a variety of substances including alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis, e-cigarettes, stimulants, and opioids. "Results indicated that COVID-19-related worry was associated with substance use coping motives."

"Overall, the results generally supported hypotheses, such that, across substances, levels of COVID-19-related worry and fear were highest among those people who initiated substances during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to those who used substances prior and those who never used."

Thus these results suggest that both worry and fear can lead to substance use initiation and maintenance during the current pandemic. Worry arising from Covid-19 can then potentially lead to using substances such as alcohol, cigarettes and cannabis as a way of coping with things.  

In many ways it is unsurprising that stress and worry should lead to using things like cigarettes, alcohol and cannabis as ways of seeking to cope and, at least temporarily, try and reduce negative thoughts and feelings. When I work with people to quit smoking, take control over alcohol or end any other substances use, that coping use is very often something we need to tackle so that people can be in control and manage any stresses and challenges without needing those things.  Of course, substance habits can also exist that need to be tackled, but when faced with stress and worry the habit and substance use typically increases.

The good news is that it is possible to deal with the stress and anxiety, from coronavirus or otherwise, to reduce those unwanted negative thoughts and emotions. It is also possible to take back control over alcohol or other substances, or to quit them altogther (e.g. as with stopping smoking).

 

Coronavirus and Mental Health

Further evidence of the impact of coronavirus on mental health and substance use comes from another recently published study.

Niedzwiedz et al (Mental health and health behaviours before and during the initial phase of the COVID-19 lockdown: longitudinal analyses of the UK Household Longitudinal Study, 2020),  examined trends in mental health and health behaviours in the UK before and during the initial phase of the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly given previous research I've written about, they found that psychological distress increased a month into lockdown. Here it was noted that the most adversely affected groups included women and young adults. 

"Psychological distress substantially increased in the UK following the COVID-19 pandemic. Groups most adversely affected included women and younger people. The increase in psychological distress, measured after the first month of lockdown, appeared to be driven by a reduction in enjoyment of normal day-to-day activities, as well as increased difficulties with concentration and sleep, and feelings of unhappiness."

Of interest was that they found that smoking declined, perhaps due to media stories about the increased risks if a smoker and you contract coronavirus, reduced stress from employment or education, or a reduction in social smoking.

Conversely, the frequency of drinking four or more times a week and binge drinking increased. Although not explored in the study, this may be that alcohol was used as a coping mechanism for stress and worry, or that being at home more created more opportunity for habitual drinking or binge drinking.

 

Stress, Anxiety, Alcohol and Coronavirus

From the research mentioned above, and the many other pieces of research I've written about in recent months, there is pretty much no doubt that the current coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on mental health and has lead to psychological distress.  

That coronavirus fear, worry and anxiety can in turn lead to you seeking something to help deal with all those distressing thoughts and feelings. Very often this can be alcohol or another substance such as nicotine or cannabis.

Even outside of coronavirus related issues, I help many people each year who want to quit smoking, end binge drinking (or stop drinking alcohol altogether) or end some other habit they are battling with. The evidence here just supports how stress and worry around Covid-19 can also lead to using alcohol etc as a coping strategy in an effort to try and find some relief and escape. Whilst for a short period or at  low level this may not cause any particular problems, for many that behaviour can have adverse, negative consequences on their health and well-being, as well as impacting on other aspects of their life.

It certainly is possible to find more constructive and healthier ways of dealing with stress, anxiety and worry, whatever they are caused from. And it certainly is possible to end unhealthy habits like smoking and excessive drinking. And with the second wave looking here to stay for a while, there are many good reasons to learn how to take back control, cope and deal with things more calmly and make sure you adopt healthy behaviours that will benefit you way beyond this period in our lives.

To your health and happiness,

Dan Regan

Hypnotherapy in Ely & Newmarket

 

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References:

Avery, A.R., Tsang, S., Seto, E.Y. and Duncan, G.E., 2020. Stress, anxiety and change in alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic: Findings among adult twin pairs. Frontiers in Psychiatry11, p.1030.

Niedzwiedz CLGreen MJBenzeval M, et al. Mental health and health behaviours before and during the initial phase of the COVID-19 lockdown: longitudinal analyses of the UK Household Longitudinal Study 

Rogers, A.H., Shepherd, J.M., Garey, L. and Zvolensky, M.J., 2020. Psychological factors associated with substance use initiation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry research293, p.113407.