A slippery slope: using alcohol to cope with loneliness or isolation during COVID-19

In many ways, COVID has brought us closer: we’re laughing over interruptions from our pets and children while on Zoom, we’re sharing resources, and many of us are joining virtual happy hours to connect with our friends and loved ones. But what happens when the phone battery dies, the internet connection is unstable, or we feel like it’s just not the same as being with someone in person?

Suddenly, loneliness and isolation return, and we look for relief elsewhere. Maybe it feels like time to have another beer and stream a new show; suddenly, hours have passed and we’ve drunk a six-pack. Or we’ve opened a bottle of wine to have a glass with dinner, and we decide we might as well finish the bottle. Our current situation has led many of us to turn to alcohol as a way to cope, leading us into what’s called “gray area drinking.”

Gray Area Drinking
Gray area drinking isn’t the same as excessive drinking, which includes both heavy drinking and binge drinking. The CDC defines heavy drinking as 8 or more drinks a week for women, and 15 or more drinks for a man. Binge drinking is defined as having 4 or more drinks in a 2-3 hour period for women, and as having 5 or more drinks for men.

In her TedTalk on gray area drinking, Ms. Park, the founder of Healthy Discoveries, describes her own experience with gray area drinking: she’d quit drinking for a while and then wonder why she was being so restrictive. She’d start drinking again, thinking she could have a single glass of wine, and find herself finishing the whole bottle in an evening. She’d drink wine most evenings, which put her into the excessive drinking category defined by the CDC. She was engaged in gray area drinking—the space between occasional drinking and rock bottom drinking. Gray area drinkers function capably, don’t usually have major consequences to their drinking, like a DUI or losing a job, but their drinking is problematic.

Right now, we can feel disconnected, worried, isolated, and scared, and in our desire to cope with our feelings, we sometimes turn to alcohol. How can we determine if we might be in that gray area? Ms. Park outlines the following five signs:

  1. You silently worry about, and regret, your drinking.
  2. You drink between two extremes: you’re not at rock bottom, but you aren’t an occasional drinker either.
  3. You can stop drinking and you have stopped drinking for periods of time—even weeks or months—but it’s hard to stay stopped.
  4. Your drinking often doesn’t look problematic to those around you.
  5. You ricochet between telling yourself to stop drinking, and deciding that you’re overthinking and you just need to “live a little.”

How to Make a Change
Gray area drinking can be a slippery slope, and stressful times, like a pandemic, can make the slope even slipperier. What else can we do to fend off isolation instead of reaching for a drink? Ms. Park suggests the following:

  1. Ask yourself what you really want.
    Alcohol often feels like an escape from frustration, anxiety, and stress. Instead of drinking, we can ask ourselves what is driving our desire to drink and what we really need. What do we feel is lacking? More quiet time? More connection? Do we want more fun, purpose, or intimacy? We need to recognize that alcohol won’t give us any of those things. As we give ourselves more of what we’re really craving, the perceived need for alcohol will diminish.
  2. Add a few new things to your life
    Once you’ve made the decision to take a break from alcohol, look at what you can add in. Maybe it’s time to foster spiritual growth or new relationships. Start a new exercise routine, finally cook that meal you’ve always wanted to try, or take time to develop your emotional and spiritual well-being.

Using substances to cope is not unusual, and this pandemic is making it more common, but there are things you can do to cope. If you think you need more help, you are not alone, and there is a lot of help and support available to you.

Useful Resources
If you are feeling lonely or worried, we offer 24/7 phone support via The Center Support Line at 970.252.6220.

If you would like to learn more about treatment options, reach out to The Center for Mental Health at 970.252.3200.

Take a free, online assessment at www.centermh.org/help.

We also offer free access to an online mental health support tool called myStrength at www.centermh.org/mystrength.

Jolene Park, TedTalk: Gray Area Drinking: ted.com/talks/jolene_park_gray_area_drinking
CDC definitions of excessive drinking: cdc.gov/alcohol/pdfs/excessive_alcohol_use.pdf