Written By: Sarah Kelly, MSW, LSW, CADC
Alcohol and Mental Health
Throughout the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, our relationship with alcohol has shifted. Prior to the pandemic, alcohol consumption for many people often occurred in public spaces while in the company of friends and family. Many people who were drinking alcohol would do so over the weekend and would avoid or minimally consume alcohol during their workweek. However, the pandemic has shifted these trends. Due to needed restrictions on how people socialize with each other, many spaces and events where alcohol was consumed were no longer available leaving people to consume alcohol primarily alone in their homes.
Additionally, many people have experienced heightened boredom due to the limitations of social distancing which often led to higher alcohol consumption. According to Pollard, Tucker, and Green, alcohol consumption among Americans increased by 14% from April 2019 to June 2020. These increases in alcohol consumption were found to primarily impact women and adults between the ages of 30 and 59 years old.
The pandemic has also had an impact on those who have already made the choice to not consume alcohol and pursue sobriety. Many folks who are sober or are in recovery from alcohol abuse, rely on structure and social support to maintain their sobriety. The necessary measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the ability of sober people to engage with their support systems. This led to many individuals experiencing relapses and having to return to treatment. While working at a substance use treatment center early in the pandemic, I was particularly overwhelmed by the number of individuals seeking treatment due to relapsing after having attained long-term sobriety.
These realities make it timely and important to discuss how alcohol impacts our mental health, when it may be important to not drink alcohol, and what may indicate that someone is struggling with alcohol. Additionally, it is also valuable to discuss various resources and settings where support for challenges with alcohol can be sought.
How Alcohol Affects Your Mental Health
As many of us know, when consumed, alcohol affects how we think, feel, and move through the world. Many people state that they enjoy drinking alcohol because it provides “liquid courage,” improved social skills, and an overall sense of ease. However, alcohol is classified as a depressant, meaning that it slows our brains down.
With any level of alcohol use, but particularly with consistently high alcohol use, we put ourselves at risk of experiencing challenges with concentration, memory, and learning new material. People may also experience personality changes, hazy thinking, and increased symptoms of depression and anxiety. According to Health Service Executive, many alcohol drinkers will find that alcohol impacts their emotions in one of two ways: emotional numbing or heightened emotional release. Emotional numbing involves using alcohol to manage emotions and to lessen the intensity of emotions. When emotional numbing occurs, a person can become dependent on alcohol because they no longer know how to express or manage their emotions.
Conversely, emotional release can also occur because at times alcohol can make our emotions more intense. When an emotional release occurs due to alcohol use, it can lead to a higher occurrence of arguments, self-harm, violence, or thoughts of suicide. While the use of alcohol can be used by many to improve their emotional state, as described above, there are also several significant mental health-related consequences to consider.
When to Avoid Drinking Alcohol
There are several reasons that people may want to consider avoiding drinking alcohol due to alcohol’s impact on physical and mental health. Below are situations in which a person may want to avoid drinking or minimize drinking behaviors.
- When pregnant – if a person drinks while pregnant, there can be severe health-related consequences for the health of the baby and the health of the mother.
- When taking certain medications – some medications may be less effective or harmful when mixed with alcohol. To see a comprehensive list of how various medications interact with alcohol, click here.
- If you have clinical depression or anxiety – alcohol consumption can increase depression and anxiety symptoms.
- When underage – alcohol consumption under the legal age of consumption can lead to legal and other consequences.
- When operating vehicles or machinery – alcohol prevents the safe operation of any vehicles or machinery.
- Before sleeping – alcohol can disrupt REM sleep and impact the body’s Circadian Rhythm.
How Do I Know If I Have a Drinking Problem?
While discussing alcohol and its impact on emotional and physical health, it is important to consider what some of the signs and symptoms are of disordered alcohol use. According to the American Psychological Association, below are signs to look for when contemplating whether or not you or a loved one have an alcohol use disorder:
- Drinking alcohol in larger amounts or for longer than intended
- Wanting to cut down or stop alcohol use and being unable to
- Spending significant time getting, drinking, or recovering from alcohol use
- Having cravings and urges to drink
- Not following through with work, school, or home responsibilities due to alcohol use
- Continuing to drink even when you know it is causing a problem
- Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of alcohol use
- Using alcohol even if it puts you in danger
- Continuing to drink even when you know you have a psychological or physical ailment that will be made worse by drinking.
- Needing more alcohol to get the desired effect of drinking – tolerance
- Developing withdrawal symptoms which can be relieved by drinking more alcohol
Two or more of the above symptoms indicate a mild problem with alcohol, three to five symptoms indicate a moderate problem with alcohol, and six or more symptoms indicate a severe problem with alcohol.
Alcohol Misuse – Treatment
You may have concerns, questions, or curiosities regarding the way that you or a loved one consumes alcohol. Thankfully, there is a large network of resources for those who need support with alcohol. SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) has a wide variety of resources and information specific to individual needs for substance use treatment. If you are working towards sobriety or active in recovery, there are many support groups available in person and online for those looking for community-based support. Common support groups include Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and Dharma Recovery. Each support group has a different focus, but all are meant to build a community around recovery. Seeking therapeutic support through individual therapy or group therapy is also an option when thinking about managing alcohol use.
At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff who specialize in addiction counseling. We also offer weekly group therapy to support those in early recovery. To learn more about how we can support alcohol misuse, call Clarity Clinic on (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.