New research points to far-reaching public health concerns of pandemic stress drinking

July 20, 2020

By Sally Crocker

Covid 19 Drinking Web

There’s a lot of drinking going on during COVID-19.

Takeout, home deliveries and curbside pickup of beer, wine, liquors and other alcoholic products have increased significantly – from 40%-50%, according to different sources – over the months since the U.S. first locked down over coronavirus concerns.

“There is a tremendous amount of psychological stress associated with the pandemic, and a lot of people are really suffering,” said Dr. Dana Litt, a faculty researcher with the HSC School of Public Health who studies drinking patterns and develops alcohol preventions and interventions.

“People are drinking more than normal, and what’s concerning is that we’re not likely to see those numbers go down anytime soon, since COVID-19 will probably be with us for a long while,” she said.

Dr. Litt joined social psychology researcher Dr. Lindsey Rodriguez from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg and Dr. Sherry Stewart, Canada Research Chair in Addictions and Mental Health at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Medicine, to examine the ways that COVID-19 psychological stresses are impacting drinking behavior among men and women ages 18 and older.

Their study will be published this fall in the peer-reviewed journal Addictive Behaviors and is in early, online release now to the scientific community. It surveyed 754 U.S. adults split equally between males and females with an average age of 42, who were working either part- or full-time during the April 17-23, 2020, time period when the pandemic and state lockdowns were hitting most Americans hard.

Participants were asked about their alcohol use and their thoughts and feelings on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research investigated how worried and afraid people were about the virus, how stressed they felt about being around others, and whether the pandemic was impacting their psychological well being and making them feel depressed.

These feelings and reactions were correlated to respondents’ self-reported alcohol use during the month leading up to and including the week of April 17-23, giving the researchers a point-in-time look at peak and typical drinking behaviors and their relationship to people’s psychological distress about the pandemic.

Significantly, this time period overlapped with the beginnings of COVID-19 widespread awareness in the U.S. and into the first early weeks of stay-at-home measures, rising virus rates and breaking news coverage that consumed most media reports.

The researchers found that the more stress people felt about COVID-19, the more heavily they were drinking.  This was particularly true for the women surveyed, such that at high levels of COVID-19 psychological distress, their drinking caught up with that of men’s.

“We discovered that women’s heavy drinking was more impacted by psychological distress around the pandemic than was men’s heavy drinking,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “This is very concerning, given that adverse health effects, like liver and heart disease, happen at lower doses of alcohol use for women than men, suggesting that women are catching up with men’s drinking at high levels of distress – this data is of grave concern.”

Various internal and external pressures are running high during the pandemic.

“The increased stresses that many parents have been feeling while navigating their jobs, facing possible financial and family health concerns, keeping up with the household, trying to homeschool their children and keep them engaged, have all been significant on their psychological overload, demands on their time and conflicting responsibilities, which likely contributes to more frequent and heavier drinking,” Dr. Litt said.

“It’s a very unique time and context for everyone – we’ve never been in this type of situation before – and people have been making tremendous sacrifices at a time when there are so many unknowns.”

“Our findings may have reflected more solitary, coping-related alcohol consumption, not like having dinner and drinks out with friends,” Dr. Stewart said. “Pandemic drinking at home appears to be more about people’s responses to the uncertainty and anxiety many are faced with at this time.”

The researchers emphasize that these findings are worthy of attention, especially with COVID-19 again spiking in many U.S. states.

“The public health impacts are of great concern right now, especially for women,” Dr. Litt said.

“As the pandemic continues to evolve, it’s crucial to include and work on COVID-19-related stress as a health concern that also requires resources and solutions,” she added. “Habits that are formed right now could have far-reaching consequences for the future.”

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