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5 Ways to Keep Alcohol Use in Check During Stressful Times

How not to let a fun pastime or intended stress-reducer get out of control.

In response to a recent blog I wrote, “Worried About Alcohol Use During the Pandemic?” a friend jokingly messaged me: “I only worry when my alcohol supply is running low! But seriously, got any tips for keeping alcohol in check?”

Here are five ways to help you avoid falling into harmful patterns of alcohol use during these challenging times.

1. Take stock of your drinking.

I’m frequently asked, “How much is too much?” As a general rule of thumb, high-risk drinking (i.e. levels of alcohol use that could start harming your body) is considered:

  • for women, 4 or more drinks on any given day, or 8 or more drinks per week
  • for men, 5 or more drinks on any given day, or 15 or more drinks per week

Remember that when you’re counting drinks, a standard drink is 12 ounces of regular beer at about 5 percent alcohol content, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a shot of liquor. When tallying up how much you are drinking, keep in mind that craft beers, strong mixed drinks, or hefty wine glasses often contain more than one standard drink of alcohol.

2. Know what to look for.

Guidelines for harmful drinking are only that: guidelines. How much alcohol is harmful will vary for each individual, depending on personal factors, general health and other medical conditions, and whether an individual is taking other medications. For that reason, you want to keep an eye on whether your drinking is causing you problems.

Indicators of problems include:

  • drinking more than you intended
  • having trouble cutting down on your drinking
  • getting into situations while drinking that could get you hurt (e.g., having unsafe sex, driving)
  • having to drink a lot more to get the same effect (developing tolerance)
  • continuing to drink even though it is making you depressed or anxious, or leading to other health problems or blackouts
  • spending a lot of time drinking, or recovering from the effects of alcohol
  • continuing to drink even though it is causing problems with your family or friends
  • interfering with your responsibilities, at home, school, or work
  • giving up other activities because of your drinking
  • craving alcohol when you aren’t drinking
  • having trouble sleeping, restlessness, nausea, sweating, or other physical symptoms when you stop drinking

Alcohol use disorder is diagnosed by how many of the above criteria you endorse. Experiencing two or three problems from the above list is considered an indicator of mild problems, four to five symptoms indicate moderate problems, and experiencing six or more symptoms from the above list meets the criteria for severe alcohol use disorder.

3. Take a break.

Even in the best of times, alcohol can be habit-forming. You have a drink when you get home from work; you have a glass of wine with dinner. Over time, our brain gets into a routine and we fall into a pattern.

The problem with the pandemic is that it threw many of our usual routines out the window and created opportunities to use alcohol more frequently. The Barefoot Contessa star Ina Garten jokingly declared on Instagram, “It’s always cocktail hour in a crisis!”

An easy way to get out of the cycle is to take a break from alcohol. You can decide how long of a break you want to take—perhaps a week, or two, or a month. The key is to set a time period where you commit to not drinking alcohol. The simple act of taking a break from alcohol helps break the cycle of alcohol use becoming habit-forming.

4. Have an accountability partner.

Maybe you are one of those people who has no problem sticking to your resolutions (I envy you), but many of us are lower on self-control. Having an accountability partner is a proven way to help you stick to your commitments, whether that is taking a break from alcohol for a defined period of time, or simply setting some rules around your drinking.

For example, some people commit to not having more than a certain number of drinks per day/week, or only drinking at certain times. An accountability partner could be a spouse, friend, or anyone else that you can inform of your intentions and who will check in with you to make sure you’re sticking to them.

5. Change your routine.

Another simple way to break a habit (such as using alcohol regularly) is to create a new routine. If you usually have a glass of wine after dinner, then start going for an evening walk instead. Extra bonus: exercise is a great way to stay healthy and has beneficial effects on well-being! Or if you find yourself craving a special mid-afternoon drink, find a non-alcoholic version that you can substitute instead: I’m partial to flavored Pellegrino in a fancy glass. Find what works for you; the key is to substitute a new activity to take the place of drinking.

Finally, if you are concerned about your drinking, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website has great resources to find an alcohol treatment provider; the Psychology Today therapist directory is also a good resource. The majority of people who meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder never seek help. Don’t wait until your drinking is hurting your life before you reach out.

Do you have topics you’d like me to address in future blog posts? Message me with your ideas!

More from Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D.
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