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Lockdown or lock-in? : Making Changes to Your Drinking during Covid-19 and Beyond

Updated: Nov 22, 2021



The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lock-down has, to say the least, had a profound impact on us all. If you are anything like me you’ve probably been on a roller-coaster of emotions that have oscillated on an almost hourly basis between anxiety and uncertainty right through to feelings of boredom and even a tentative sense that I might have cracked this whole work life integration thing** (**Spoiler - this doesn’t last). Yet as someone who has worked in addiction services, I’m also aware that these emotions when combined with a hefty amount of working from home provide the perfect context for escalation in our drinking levels.


Prior to lock-down, you may have been partial to the odd glass of wine when you got in from work or your drinking may have been limited to the obligatory after work drinks on a Friday.... Yet in the working-from-home world, that 8pm G&T might have become the 5:05pm G&T as you try to define your “at-home” from your “at-work”

For example, prior to lock-down you may have been partial to the odd glass of wine when you got in from work or your drinking may have been limited to the obligatory after work drinks on a Friday. Yet in the working-from-home world, that 8pm G&T might have become the 5:05pm G&T as you try to define your “at-home” from your “at-work” and Friday night drinks have morphed into daily wine o'clock Zoom calls. Without access to the gym, hobbies, friends and our other usual coping mechanisms, alcohol might have felt like the only accessible way we have had to manage the emotional ups and downs of the past few months.


So what’s the issue?


For many of us, these changes are temporary but for others shifting our new alcohol habits might be harder than first thought. Indeed, it may be the case for some of us that our relationship with alcohol even prior to lock-down may not have been where we wanted it to be. This realisation in itself can be an uncomfortable one . Even going back to Roman times... drinking more than we should has always come with bucket loads of shame and self-criticism.


The stress and impact of lock-down has affected many of us and consequently new research has indicated that 1 in 5 have reported drinking more - suggesting that 8.6 million of us in the UK are drinking more frequently during lock-down than we did before

However it is important to remember that many of us are weathering this current storm. The stress and impact of lock-down has affected many and consequently new research from AlcoholChangeUK has indicated that 1 in 5 have reported drinking more - suggesting that 8.6 million of us in the UK are drinking more frequently during lock-down than we did previously. Likewise, 4 in 10 report drinking alcohol to manage difficult feelings of anxiety and depression and to be honest it's probably a lot higher than that in reality. Alcohol has quite commonly been the go-to-antidote for trauma.

But this escalation in our drinking isn't just a question of poor national willpower, biologically our brains are wired to see alcohol as something intrinsically rewarding (alcohol releases dopamine, one of the body’s feel-good chemicals) and its sedative, relaxing effects can feel like just the ticket for the current tensions.


Yet while alcohol can feel great in the moment we are also very familiar with its darker side. In the short term we all know the pain of a hangover but equally over the longer term high alcohol use can wreak havoc with our bodies (high blood pressure, liver damage, cardiovascular disease,and memory difficulties just for starters). As a substance with depressant qualities it can also lead to increased feelings of anxiety and low mood and has enormous impacts on our sleep quality resulting in waking in the middle of the night, snoring and sleep apnoea. As boring as it may sound, alcohol really is best enjoyed in moderation....and really isn't the best night cap.


But this escalation in our drinking isn't just a question of poor national willpower, biologically our brains are wired to see alcohol as something intrinsically rewarding (alcohol releases dopamine, one of the body’s feel-good chemicals) and its sedative, relaxing effects can feel like just the ticket for the current tensions.

How do we know when it’s problematic?


So how do we know when we have moved into a territory that feels different or is more problematic with alcohol? From a government health perspective, the advice is to drink no more than 14 units a week on a regular basis (spread evenly over the week). This equates to about 6 pints of 4% lager or 6 medium (175ml) glasses of 13.5% wine (you can use the unit and calorie calculator at DrinkAware if you want to calculate your own drinking). If we are drinking more than this, then this is our first red flag for change.


Further warning signs might be drinking to get drunk, drinking quickly or drinking large amounts over a single session (or binge drinking). For some, it might be more serious - finding it hard to stop drinking once you start, planning events around alcohol or even needing a drink first thing in the morning (in these cases, getting medical advice is highly recommended). For the majority, it might be noticing increased feelings of anxiety/low mood after drinking, drinking more frequently than usual or noticing that the once bottle of wine has increased to bottles.


You might also want to consider the following questions:

  1. How do I feel about my current level of drinking? Has this changed at all? Is it more or less?

  2. Am I drinking to reduce negative emotions such as anxiety, low mood, stress or anger?

  3. Can I stop or reduce my drinking? How easy/hard was this?

  4. Have others commented on my drinking and think it’s a problem?

  5. What do I think the impact of my drinking is on my work/family/education/relationships?

  6. Have I noticed any negatives to my drinking? Either physically or mentally?


Making the Change


If after answering the above you feel changes are needed to your drinking then the following points may help to get you on the right track. This can feel like a daunting move but simple small changes can often lead to significant positive impacts and there is lots of support out there to help you (see the end for different support options):


1. Why do I want to do this?

Outlining clearly why you want to make changes and writing these down can help to motivate you. Be conscious to think about the reasons YOU want to change – doing it purely for others won’t last. Focus on what you are going to gain as much as what you are hoping to avoid (i.e. hangovers) – it’s usually the positives we gain from making these changes that helps to keep us on track! Pinning these ideas somewhere you can see them can also serve as a helpful reminder if things get a bit tough.


2. Why don’t I want to do this?

Conversely, you might also want to think about the reasons NOT to change as well – what will you miss about not drinking? Outlining these factors can highlight what the potential barriers might be and help you to prepare and problem solve before you come across them.


3. What are my goals?

Think about what you want to achieve. It’s no use just saying I want to cut back. Be specific and be realistic. How much do you want to cut back? Think about whether this is specific days (i.e scheduling non-drinking days), units (e.g. you might swap to small wine glasses or include alcohol free alternatives), types of alcohol (swapping spirits for beer for example) or even drinking/not drinking in certain contexts. When will you review your progress?


4. Plan, Plan, Plan

Whilst it is impossible to plan for every eventuality, think about what your triggers are and plan for them. What are the external situations as well as more internal feelings and thoughts that lead to cravings for alcohol? Is it the networking event at work bringing about social anxiety? Is it the difficult family tensions at an upcoming wedding? Or simply passing a pub on a sunny day? Being able to identify these so called high risk situations and triggers can help us to plan and avoid difficult scenarios where we can feel trapped. It might also make us think about whether other support is needed. If stress at work is the trigger, would it be helpful to talk to someone about this? Can we manage this in a different way? During lock-down it might be that simply planning to not have alcohol in your home can reduce the temptation and prevent drinking without thinking.

5. Communicate Your Plans

You might feel embarrassed about talking about your desire to reduce or stop drinking but research has shown that the more people talk through their plans with family, friends and work colleagues, the more likely they were to achieve their goals. Talking with others allows you to gain support and reduce the likelihood of others putting you in a tight spot.


6. Consider the Basics

In starting your journey focus on some of the basics – exercise, eating healthy, getting into a regular sleeping pattern can all help to put you best position to enact your plans and improve your mood overall.


Managing the Inevitable Cravings


One of the key issues to factor in to your plans are cravings such as thoughts like “I really want a drink” or physical urges for alcohol. Regardless of your level of drinking or your goals, having a plan to manage cravings should be a key part. These urges can be triggered by specific thoughts, feelings or situations or they can appear to come out of nowhere so having a few techniques up your sleeve can really help. The important part of cravings is to understand that they are normal and will eventually pass, the skill is learning to manage and tolerate the initial discomfort that can come with them.



Although for some people cravings can feel like a constant fixture, the reality is they disappear if they are not attended to. This can feel in the moment extremely difficult but they do pass!


Delay/Ride it Out: Although for some people cravings can feel like a constant fixture, the reality is they disappear if they are not attended to. This can feel in the moment extremely difficult but they do pass eventually if you don’t give in to them. If they haven’t passed within 15 minutes or so then you are probably still being exposed to a trigger. The more you are able to ride them out - the less intense and frequent they become over time. You might want to visualise it as ocean wave - that crests and eventually breaks.



Leave/Escape: If you find yourself in a triggering situation and you can– simply leave. The mere process of leaving can be enough to focus your mind away from the actual craving or urge.


Distractions: Make a plan in advance of healthy alternative activities you can do when a craving strikes. These might be engaging in exercise, listening to music, talking to someone, having a relaxing bath or shower, engaging in mindfulness etc. Make sure you have a couple that you can turn to in different situations.


Reminders: As above, make sure you have the reasons for making the change somewhere to hand. These might be on a piece of paper in your wallet or entered on your phone. You can always make up an acronym if you don't want others to know - it just needs to mean something to you.



Further Help and Resources


Making changes to your drinking can lead to many positives but it can also be challenging. The important thing to remember is that there is no shame in asking for help and there are many different ways of getting support to start you on your journey. Below are some of the key online sources of support you might want to explore:

  • Drinkaware: Lots of great information and self-assessment tools. You can also phone the Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 if you or someone you know is worried about alcohol or talk to a trained advisor anonymously via Drinkchat.

  • Club Soda: Website focusing on mindful drinking. Lots of resources and information for those wanting to make changes to their drinking – as well as some short courses and signposting to events where you can socialise alcohol-free.

  • Soberistas: Online community offering support and help to each other to kick the booze.

  • Alcoholic Anonymous (AA): Mutual aid fellowship using a 12-step program to help those to recover from alcoholism and stay sober.

  • SMART Recovery : SMART Recovery is a 4 point programme using cognitive behavioural therapy and the latest knowledge in science to help people struggling with alcoholism in group discussion sessions.

  • Intuitive Recovery: Intuitive Recovery is an accredited educational programme delivered in either short or extended formats to help build skills in recognising and controlling addictive behaviours.

  • Adfam: Lots of invaluable information, advice and support for families of those struggling with drug and/or alcohol problems.

Alongside these organisations there are also some great apps such DrinkAware, DrinkControl and Leaf that you can download to help you day-to-day.


Your GP can also be a helpful avenue of support and point you to services and organisations in your local area.




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