Coping with increased alcohol consumption before it becomes a pandemic-related problem

National sales of alcohol rose 54% with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic while online sales, compared to the same time last year, increased 262%, according to research published in the Jama Network. Now, a Northern Virginia psychiatrist has tips to help people who may want to cut back on consumption.

The advice involves focusing on healthy coping skills and coping mechanisms.

“Healthy coping skills does not have to be anything fancy,” said Dr. Lauren Grawert, an addiction psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Northern Virginia.

“It can be as simple as giving yourself something positive to look forward to that does not include alcohol,” she said.

Welcome distractions might include, for example, binge-watching a TV show or setting up a video call with a collection of friends or anything that will keep you busy and your mind occupied.

“And, the other thing I think to really keep in mind is — being vulnerable enough to ask for the help when you realize you need it,” Grawert said.

Mental health experts at Kaiser Permanente have noticed increased alcohol use for several reasons related to the coronavirus pandemic, including social isolation, job loss, health concerns and lack of usual in-person support systems.

Alcohol “consumption” can begin to develop into what’s known as “alcohol use disorder,” when it starts affecting your life in multiple different ways.

Grawert said one of the first, subtle signs involves variations in sleep patterns such as insomnia or troublesome oversleeping. She said you might start missing work.

“Or even, when you’re finding that you’re not as productive at work or you’re not as productive with your family because you’re thinking about alcohol so much,” Grawert said.

For people who are struggling, Grawert recommends a two-prong approach that first includes formal medical intervention with a physician and therapist. The second approach involves engaging with a peer support group.

Grawert said doctors could give people medical evaluations to access withdrawal potential and talk about medication.

Doctors also can help someone explore virtual support systems such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

Also helping with addiction, Smart Recovery has lots of virtual options and offers a less spiritual component than AA.

Family members of someone struggling with alcohol might consult with Al-Anon. Teenagers affected by someone else’s alcoholism might check in with Alateen to share their experiences.

A 24/7 treatment and referral information service in English and Spanish is offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services hotline (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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