How can I manage COVID-19-related alcohol use?

For many people, the changes that have happened for them since COVID-19-related lockdowns began have been significant. Changes in work situation, daily routine, schooling, family support and income have had major impacts on our lives – and it has been challenging at times to adjust to the new reality. 

For many people, alcohol use has increased over this time, often being used as a coping mechanism for stress, or even as a way to ‘book-end’ the day and help to mark the end of the working day. Unfortunately, as we know, daily alcohol use can lead to other issues in our lives, such as issues with sleep, weight gain, changes in our mood, relationship difficulties and struggles with motivation and energy. 

So – how might we start to make changes with our alcohol use during this time – when the world is upside down and our daily routines are all over the place? Here are some useful tips: 

1. Establish a Routine. 

For many of us, the day to day routine of commuting to work and going about our day may have been somewhat tedious – but also had the added benefit of freeing up room in our brains to think about other things. As much as we might resist it, having a routine frees us from making too many decisions – we generally know when we’ll start work, what we’ll have for lunch, where we’ll sit. Working from home can be a challenge because we’re suddenly in charge of all these new decisions, and are responsible for our own time – meaning we have a lot more decisions to make, and they all need to result in us getting our work done on time, and with little supervision. Some of our Daybreak members describe feeling exhausted at the end of a day when working from home – feeling scattered and also unproductive, and feeling like they ‘need’ a drink to settle them down and help them to switch off. A daily routine that gives you some structure and clear times for clocking on and off work means that you’re more likely to finish the day with a sense of accomplishment, rather than guilt and fatigue. Being able to plan and incorporate exercise into this routine is another good idea, since this is a great protective factor against stress. 

2. Self reflect. 

 One of the most useful steps you can take when looking to change your relationship with alcohol is to really understand what role it is playing for you. What has changed in your life that might have led to you drinking more? How long has this been an issue for you? Is there a time when it wasn’t as much of a problem – and if so, what was different then? Often if we can really understand what role alcohol plays for us in our lives, it means we can re-design our relationship with it to suit us much better. Some people might identify that they’re more likely to use alcohol heavily when they are feeling lonely, or when they are going through stress in their lives. Others might find it is something that is over-used in social settings in order to help them feel more comfortable around new people. And still others might find that their drinking is really strongly related to parenting stress, and is not really an issue any other time. Being able to understand the role alcohol currently plays for you is really valuable, so then you can figure out how to manage this – without the help of alcohol. 

3. Identify triggers  

We don’t really think too much about how much triggers impact our behaviour, but in reality, for any behaviour to occur, there needs to be a trigger – for example, for us to drink water, there needs to be a trigger of thirst, and for us to answer the phone, there needs to be the trigger of the phone actually ringing. It is really likely that you have several triggers for alcohol use – these might be internal (eg. feeling bored, tired, sad, anxious or lonely) or external – things like the time of day (5pm being a key time), activity (eg. reading, talking on the phone or watching a movie) or even person (eg. being around your partner or friend). For many people, positive things are also triggers – wanting to celebrate, wanting to enhance a feeling of relaxation or happiness. See if you can reflect on your COVID-19 triggers for drinking – these are probably different from regular triggers, and might be more about regulating your emotions or managing boredom. Identify the major triggers for you, and start to consider how you might manage these differently. 

4. Replacement behaviours. 

It can be really hard to get rid of triggers – after all, how do you get rid of 5pm? You can quit your job and make sure you’re walking on a beach somewhere at 5pm most days, but it’s likely that other triggers will just pop up for you in different places. Where we do have a lot of power is in terms of replacement behaviours. This works from the idea that, in many situations, there are valid replacements for alcohol, in terms of either behaviour (eg. going for a walk after work to avoid the after work drink urge) or the drink itself (eg. for many people, a big glass of soda water with lime can act as a replacement for wine during weeknights). Most people will find that having several replacement behaviours means that they can exercise choice in those challenging moments – they can choose to have a drink if they really want to, but they can also choose to do something different – whether that is make a cup of tea, have a non-alcoholic beer, or run themselves a hot bath so they can relax and unwind. 

5. Get some support. 

These are some key principles for starting to change your relationship with alcohol, but the reality is also that change happens over time. Just as alcohol only gradually became an issue for you, it is going to take some time for these new behaviours to take effect. Research shows us that some of the most effective behaviour change methods involve the support of a like-minded group – people going through a similar journey, as well as professional support. Hello Sunday Morning’s ‘Daybreak’ app has been designed with behaviour change in mind, and consists of a peer support feed and health coaching. Everyone in the community is working towards the goal of changing their relationship with alcohol – and has a wealth of advice and information that is going to be helpful for you. Health Coaches can also confidentially advise on other issue that might be going on for you, such as stress, workload, parenting, sleep or mental health issues. 

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