Is My Pandemic Drinking Becoming a Problem?

October is National Emotional Wellness Month. As an alcohol counselor, I have to ask: how is your drinking these days?

American adults are drinking 14% more often during the pandemic than 1 year ago, according to a recent report in the JAMA Network Open. Women, in particular, are drinking 17% more frequently than they were 1 year ago.

Reasons to drink abound in 2020. People are making “quarantinis,” attending Zoom Happy Hours, and escaping into end-of-day drinks to cope with chronic stress (e.g. the stress of parenting in a pandemic, the stress of financial uncertainty, the stress of political and social upheaval, the stress of wildfires and climate doom). Sometimes it can be hard to tell if we’re drinking to have fun, or just to cope with our current realities.

Let’s check in on your relationship with alcohol.

Finish this sentence: “Right now, I’m drinking…

a) …a lot less than 2019 or abstaining from alcohol.”
b) …pretty much the same amount of alcohol as 2019.”
c) …a lot more alcohol than 2019.”
d) …probably more alcohol than in 2019, but I try not to think about it.”

If your answer is “A,” and you are drinking a lot less or abstaining from drinking – great work! If you answered “B,” “C,” or “D,” this blog is my direct invitation to you to strongly reconsider your current relationship with alcohol in 2020.

“Hold up. Aren’t you an advocate for moderate and responsible drinking?”
Yes – in fact, I’m a champion for moderate drinking! My practice is grounded in the belief that far more people are capable of responsible drinking than society assumes. Moderation counseling is an evidence-based practice that reduces harm for individuals and communities. And moderate drinking is possible for a vast number of people. Moderate drinking is a worthy goal in normal times.

But these are not normal times. These are extraordinary times.
On a broad level, we can look at some haunting statistics. Besides our collective, skyrocketing consumption of alcohol in 2020, symptoms of depression and anxiety, drug overdose deaths, and traumatic stress are on the rise as well.

Our collective is struggling. These are times of challenge. And, as an advocate for moderate and responsible drinking, I want to state this quite clearly: in this moment and through the end of 2020, I do not recommend consuming alcohol on a regular basis.

If your drinking has increased in frequency or quantity in 2020, it might be time to pivot.
When navigating stress, responsible and moderate drinking can turn into a habit. Most people struggle when it comes to identifying if habitual drinking is becoming problem drinking.

If you’ve been working from home, you may be at the greatest risk of problem drinking right now. With income at your disposal and decreased opportunities to connect with others and socialize, you may be turning to alcohol as a replacement for relationships. Alcohol may feel like one of the most accessible ways for you to manage stress. A couple of drinks at the end of each day may be “helping” you by blocking out your feelings of distress related to the uncertainty of the future and your fears about the present. This all makes sense.

And yet, there is a debt to be paid for blocking out your awareness again and again. The cost has never been greater than this moment, now. As an advocate and champion for moderate drinkers, I advise you to reconsider the possible consequences of drinking alcohol in 2020. I invite you to reflect on whether or not moderate drinking is a value-add for you in this year of profound transformation.

Below are the concerns I have for anyone who is drinking alcohol on a regular basis right now. While these concerns are not permanent, they are urgent.

Point 1: Your mind, body, and spirit need clarity to meet the demands of this moment. This year, 2020, has been incredibly chaotic and disruptive for people all over the world. It is a time of crisis, as well as individual and collective grief.

On an individual level, each person, including you, is likely dealing with isolation, disrupted routines, loss of employment or fear of financial loss, grief for loved ones and friends who have died, and grief for the way our world is dramatically changing.

In the United States and as a collective, we are currently dealing with: 1) an out of control viral pandemic, 2) economic hardship, with the increasingly distinct possibility of facing a more severe and prolonged economic recession than what we experienced during the Great Depression, 3) political upheaval, with unprecedented distrust in institutions and democratic processes, 4) social unrest, with coalitions of citizens in the streets or online communities navigating a racial reckoning and deepening culture war that threatens to devolve into domestic terrorism at the hands of white supremacists, 5) climate change and climate crisis, including citizens on the West Coast experiencing out of control wildfires, poisonous smoke, and displacement from their homes; people in the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts navigating tropical storms and hurricanes increasing at such a high rate that we are running out of letters in our alphabet to name them, and 6) individual challenge and tragedy.

Clarity of mind, body, and spirit is required to navigate this unbelievable grief. You need clarity to take care of your responsibilities – to respond to what is required of you each moment of the day. Alcohol hinders this clarity – in large part because of Point 2.

Point 2: Alcohol destroys your ability to effectively move through grief and loss. Grief is not a single emotion, but rather a complex cognitive, emotional, and spiritual process involving non-linear experiences and sensations that help us come to an integrated and renewed understanding of who we are in the world. Alcohol completely disrupts this process.

For example, it’s not uncommon for my clients to experience a serious loss – death, loss of job, etc – and for them to drink heavily on the day they are notified of this loss. But I always advise my clients to stop drinking after taking one day to drink. Why? Because even one drink diminishes our mind’s ability to form neural pathways necessary to resolve grief.

This means that every time you have one drink (even a glass of wine at dinner!), you erase the processing your mind, body and spirit did to grieve that same day. While you may retain a conscious, cognitive memory of experiencing sadness and despair, the part of your mind that needs to heal and integrate new realities will “forget” that this took place.

Drinking while grieving increases the likelihood of developing chemical dependence to alcohol. It also dramatically increases the risk that you will develop Complicated Grief – a psychological syndrome that often requires professional intervention. Which brings me to Point 3.

Point 3: While alcohol may temporarily block out your awareness of negative emotions, it also blocks out your long-term ability to experience positive emotions. Imagine that emotions are on a continuum, with the most negative emotions on one end and the most positive emotions on the other.

Alcohol may temporarily block out your awareness of negative emotions, but at the cost of blocking out your ability to also experience and be aware of positive emotions when you are sober. Without access to your full range of emotional experiences, you will eventually find yourself in a place of chronic overwhelm and chronic anxiety.

If you are drinking to cope with your reality right now, it makes sense if you feel chronically anxious. Anxiety is all that we can really feel when we are drinking to cope. Which leads to Point 4.

Point 4: By blocking out your awareness and emotional range, alcohol stops you from being able to access your inner wisdom. And you need wisdom right now to cope with all of the realities described in Point 1. I work with men on promoting what I call “Emotional Leadership” – the ability to be responsive and critically competent in the most demanding of situations. This means steering the ship through rough waters with calm, compassion, and confidence.

Access to your inner wisdom is required to practice Emotional Leadership. But you will never be able to sense your inner wisdom if you are using alcohol to block out the data you need: your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Which can then lead to Point 5.

Point 5: If you continue to drink in this year of transformation/chaos, you risk losing a lot. I don’t mean losing your job, or relationships with people you love because of drinking (although that can happen). I’m talking about losing your opportunity to experience profound and positive transformation – even in the midst of multiple crises.

People have generally been experiencing 2020 in one of two ways – either taking their self-development to the next level, or spiraling into further crisis. Both groups have been faced with extraordinary challenges, unfathomable losses. But only one group is using 2020 as an opportunity to transform, whereas the other is struggling to find it.

As a therapist, I’ve observed that people who have met this moment of extraordinary challenge with resilience are those who have access to their inner wisdom. Which is impossible to access when one is drinking on a regular basis. Without access to your inner compass of wisdom, you may find yourself rolling into 2021 in a state of ongoing crisis – the feeling that you are putting out one fire after the next.

It’s not too late to change your relationship with alcohol.
You are capable of turning things around – of finding the beauty and possibility of life in the midst of challenge. People are making profound decisions and changes RIGHT NOW. You have an opportunity to benefit from the rapid transformation taking place to navigate through everything that is happening. If you’ve slipped into a pattern of mindless drinking, now is the time to consider taking a break.

I am NOT saying that everyone should stop drinking alcohol FOREVER.
However, I am saying that this moment, right now, is not the moment for moderate drinking. October through the end of this year, Q4 – however you want to think of it – is simply not the time. The spiritual cost is too high. The cost to your inner wisdom is too great.

I am NOT saying your life will become an instant disaster if you continue drinking.
But you may find yourself in 2021 feeling worse than ever, wondering how you’ve fallen so low.

Taking a break from drinking offers you significant potential for return on investment if you take the opportunity today.
As an expert in alcohol moderation, I am willing to put my reputation on the line to share this message with you: if you are struggling with the uncertainty of 2020 and desperately want to come out of this year with the tools you need to thrive, then this is the moment to take a break from drinking.

You don’t have to do this alone.
This is a time to deeply reflect on your relationship with alcohol. If you are currently drinking on a daily basis, reach out to a trained professional who can offer you guidance on what it would look like to safely discontinue drinking. If you are worried about doing this on your own, there are amazing treatment programs tailored to high-achieving professionals that can help you get where you want to go. And if you are someone who engages in binge drinking or “social” drinking, this is a time to ask yourself if alcohol is really helping you be the kind of person you want to be.

You can do more than “survive” 2020.
You are capable of responding not just adequately, but competently to the demands of this moment. You can level up from the challenges you are facing and become a better person. But continuing to mindlessly drink will only prevent you from fully realizing your abilities in this moment of extraordinary challenge.

As someone who practices and preaches moderate drinking, I also practice and preach when it is time to pause on drinking, to take a step back. Now is a time to pause, to step back, and to find an effective path forward guided by your values and inner wisdom. I believe in you. You got this!

Sarah Suzuki, AM, LCSW, CADC

Sarah Suzuki, AM, LCSW, CADC

Hi, I'm Sarah, and I'm a counselor who helps high-achieving men learn how to moderate their drinking. I currently offer counseling services and corporate training here at Chicago Compass Counseling. If you're interested, you can read more about me on my about page.