Statistics show we’re all drinking more, so we asked real women to share their current alcohol use habits – warts and all. Psychologists Tara Hurster and Briony Leo weigh in on whether a wine to unwind from a stressful day might be doing more harm than good.
One thing the pandemic has made me question is my relationship with alcohol. I had never been much of a mid-week boozer until I was locked inside my house with ‘unprecedented times’ and ‘uncertainty’ being shoved in both ear canals and lit up all over the TV screen.
Suddenly, we were told not to return to the office, not to go out and grab a coffee, and heck, don’t leave the house – not even to see family. For me, it wasn’t so much my own anxiety but the anxiety of those around me. “Wash your hands before you touch anything,” was being yelled in my direction as soon as I’d come home, “Don’t even think about leaving without gloves and a mask,” would echo behind me as I went off for an afternoon walk (and some respite). We’ve never been through something like this before, so tensions were running high.
Once the laws were changed and restaurants, pubs and the local cafe could not only sell alcohol but deliver it straight to my door, my rules of no mid-week drinking went out the window. Pair that with non-stop memes about quarantinis, Meryl Streep showing us how to make hers and Stanley Tucci breaking the internet with his negroni masterclass and quite frankly, it was hard not to.
Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter for more stories like this.
The rise of pandemic drinking
Some people have taken this chance to detox from alcohol (and even coffee for that matter), but I knew I wasn’t the only one drinking a little more. The term ‘pandemic drinking’ was coined, (not as fun as pandemic bangs, but still) and it made me wonder how the rest of Australia was coping. Were they too indulging in apple martinis delivered straight to the front door?
According to the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, 70% of Australians say they’re drinking more alcohol than they would have prior to the pandemic and 34% say they are drinking alcohol every day.
When we first went in to lockdown alcohol sales in supermarkets grew by 20% and 36.8% in bottle shops. And it hasn’t seemed to wane with bottle shop sales increasing by 25% over the last six weeks, and growing consistently since the start of May. They’re some pretty sobering statistics.
How have our drinking habits changed?
There’s a long list of why some of us are popping more bottles than usual, anxiety, loneliness and even boredom. Plus the days feel so blurred, it’s easier to you give yourself an extra-long weekend.
For me, at first it was to take the edge off: working from home, not knowing what the future held and constant feelings of stress meant a glass of red at the end of the day was a nice self-care ritual. Now, I try to stick to my rule of only drinking alcohol on the weekend. But I’m not going to punish myself if a glass of red floats in on a Wednesday or Sunday evening.
Here’s how other Australian women’s alcohol habits have changed:
“Strangely – when I stop and think about it – I’ve been thinking about drinking more, rather than actually drinking more. I usually limit alcohol to Friday to Sunday, and stick to wine or sometimes a cheeky Campari and soda, but that went out the window when the social isolation rules initially came into play.
I probably had two or three extra nights where I’d finish work, play with/feed/bathe and put my toddler to bed. Then collapse on the couch, wine in hand, to eat dinner and watch the horror of that day’s news. But that made me feel pretty crap, pretty quickly.
Now I find myself thinking about having a glass of pinot noir or rosé most nights, and longing for the sense of ‘relief’ the first sip brings. But then I remember I’ll be foggier and more tired for it in the morning so I refrain. Friday and Saturday nights I will have Campari in the late afternoon with my husband while we chat (from a distance) to our neighbours in the street, then I’ll have a few glasses of wine with dinner – which I really bloody enjoy.
Sundays I’ll have a glass or two with lunch, then stop. I think I’m actually drinking less overall, because there are no dinners with girlfriends or occasions to celebrate, or work functions to attend. Ideally, I’d love to use this time to quit altogether – because I’d sleep better and it’d help balance out my increased snacking – but at the same time, I really look forward to those few nights of drinking I do have. In the overall scheme of things I’ve found it’s been the little things that bring the most joy, so the booze stays.” – Sara
“I decided to not drink as much, give myself a break from alcohol. I have had a drink here and there but not drinking anywhere near as much as I did pre-iso. I think it’s been a nice time to have a break from drinking, it also makes it a lot easier to cut back as I don’t have any FOMO when it gets to Friday or Saturday nights when I decide to not drink and everyone else is out drinking and having fun. Don’t get me wrong I still have a wine and a few coconut margaritas here and there.” – Amanda
“Since lockdown I have noticed I care less about drinking. Before, I would limit myself to one to two at the weekend, pushing that up to four drinks for a special occasion. But now, I am drinking a wine to unwind after work and then one with dinner. I keep joking that this makes me ‘incredibly French’ but really, I’m concerned that it is effecting my gut health, skin and sleep – all things we need to be looking after right now. It’s a tough one to balance – the wine helps me separate work and life and relax – so I feel like I am choosing it as a mental salve at the moment.” – Jen
“At first I would end the day with a glass of wine every night, but soon I could feel it would turn into two or three. I decided to put in an alcohol-free night in every second night and sometimes I can go the whole working week without a drink if I keep busy. Weekends are off the cards, it’s part of my social life and my rituals. I’ll have a wine with dinner, with my family over FaceTime and a cocktail in the afternoon on a Sunday and have no regrets.” – Emma
“I find drinking alone quite boring, so I have found it’s often not worth it. Aside from a couple of alcoholic ginger beers on a Friday my drinking habits haven’t changed much.” – Karina
What do the health experts have to say?
We asked two psychologists to debate the pros and cons of drinking during a pandemic.
Tara Hurster, founder of The TARA Clinic
“While the statistics are concerning for me professionally, I totally get it! A mood altering substance does just that. It alters our mood, and it happens almost immediately as it is the chemical change of Dopamine being released that is our body’s natural happy hormone and reward system.
When we’re stressed, our brain moves into a fight or flight response and uses prior knowledge to inform us of what our next decision is. If we have practiced for some time now to have a glass of wine to calm down or relax after a big day at work, then our brain will remember that and encourage us to do it again and again.
The problem with using alcohol as the coping strategy for stress is that while it doesn’t actually solve the original problem, it can often times add extra problems, which then can lead to wanting to drink more.
While we are often told that abstinence is the only way to move on from a problem with alcohol, I don’t always agree. I believe there to be a lot of grey area in the middle and that what works for one may not work for everyone. That is something that I love about [addiction and alcohol support groups] Hello Sunday Morning and SMART Recovery’s message – is this behaviour no longer serving you? If so, then let’s take some steps towards behaviours that are serving you more.
My final thoughts are these: next time you go to reach for a drink containing alcohol, ask yourself really honestly what the purpose is for this behaviour. Then actively seek out other ways of serving that purpose for yourself in some fun and creative ways and chances are you will forget about the alcohol all together because you are enjoying the other activity so much. You’ve got this!”
Briony Leo, psychologist
“For many people, stress reduces their ability to manage their alcohol consumption. If you have a history of stress or trauma, or are under current stress, your responses to alcohol are altered – you might be more vulnerable to the relaxation or euphoria that comes with that first drink. Alcohol doesn’t just ‘give’ them a nice sensation – it also ‘takes away’ unpleasant sensations – and this can be a dangerous precedent.
For people looking to cut back on drinking, and who are vulnerable to the effects of stress, choosing not to drink during the pandemic is helpful. It takes away the mental and emotional burden of attempting to moderate alcohol consumption. When we’re stressed, lonely or anxious, and we have one drink, we are more likely to want to have another – our brains are suddenly crying out for more of whatever has numbed that feeling of restlessness or discontent.
So is the answer not drinking during the pandemic, and toughing it out? One thing that most people who stop drinking will tell you is that the discomfort and restlessness is not long term – once they get the alcohol out of their system and aren’t drinking every day, there is often a mild sense of euphoria as their brains adjust to this ‘new normal’. People might expect a reduction in anxiety and better digestion and energy. After that, it’s about finding replacement behaviours in the evening to wind down – whether it’s a self-care ritual, or scheduling an evening walk when you might be pouring that first drink.
Even though alcohol might feel like it is helping in times of stress, if we’re drinking regularly and in large amounts, it’s likely undermining our mental and physical health, sleep and leisure time. The more we can develop other ways to relax and care for ourselves, the less we will need alcohol as an escape.”
If you feel like you’re overdoing it, are worried or need help, please seek support.