When it’s not yet noon and you’ve already poured your first drink, you may find yourself wondering, “Can day drinking increase my risk of becoming an alcoholic?”
It’s an understandable concern, given the way the coronavirus has thrown so many things into chaos. Stay-at-home orders, social distancing and quarantines have been put in place and are recommended as precautions against the spread of COVID-19, and Americans have turned to booze as a coping mechanism: “Sales of alcohol at U.S. liquor and grocery stores jumped 22% for the week ending March 28, compared with the same period last year, according to research firm Nielsen,” according to a report earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal . “Online alcohol sales have also soared, while many states are temporarily allowing restaurants and bars — for the first time — to make home deliveries or sell wine and cocktails for takeout.”
Stress has long been a trigger for increased alcohol consumption, and the coronavirus pandemic is no different. If anything, COVID-19 has led to stress levels previously unheard of, according to C. Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality in the Practice Directorate for the American Psychological Association.
“We are seeing more people using alcohol as a way to cope with the anxiety and stress and uncertainty of this situation,” she told The Washington Post recently . “I think a lot of people use it to numb out. While that’s certainly a very human response to what’s going on right now, it’s generally not the best way of managing stress.”
Which makes the query — “can day drinking increase my risk of becoming an alcoholic?” — a valid one indeed.
‘Can Day Drinking Increase My Risk of Becoming an Alcoholic?’ What Are the Criteria?
Alcoholism — or alcohol use disorder (AUD), as it’s known in medical and scientific parlance — is a heavily stigmatized illness: “Compared with people suffering from other, substance-unrelated mental disorders, alcohol-dependent persons are less frequently regarded as mentally ill, are held much more responsible for their condition, provoke more social rejection and more negative emotions, and they are at particular risk for structural discrimination,” according to a 2011 scientific paper published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism .
No one wants to think of themselves as an alcoholic. Stewbum, drunk, alkie, rummy … for decades, society has looked down on those who struggle with alcohol, but there’s a fine line between alcoholism and the conviviality of overindulgence. By the same token, alcohol is one of the most heavily promoted mind-altering substances on the planet, and it’s packaged and sold as a product that promotes happiness and sociability. Where, then, is the line drawn?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) , “AUD is a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.” It’s estimated that 15 million Americans, or 5.8 percent of adults in the United States ages 18 and older, suffered from AUD in 2018.
The diagnosis is reached through a set of criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). If an individual meets two or more of the following criteria, they’re considered to have AUD. The more criteria they meet, the more serious it is, ranging from mild to moderate to severe.
So what are the criteria? In the past year, have you:
- Had times where you drank more or longer than you planned to?
- Wanted to slow or stop drinking altogether but were unable?
- Spent an inordinate amount of time drinking or recuperating from it?
- Experienced intense cravings for alcohol?
- Had problems at home, at work or at school that were caused by drinking or its after effects?
- Kept drinking even though it’s caused problems with people you care about?
- Cut back on or given up on other activities in your life because they interfered with drinking?
- Found yourself in situations while drinking that could have ended in serious harm (i.e., driving drunk or swimming)?
- Kept drinking even though it made you feel worse, made a health problem worse or caused you to black out?
- Had to drink more in order to get the buzz you once could with less?
- Experienced alcohol withdrawal symptoms after drinking — “trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating?”
It’s important to be honest — with yourself, if no one else, because if you’ve answered yes to at least two, and you’re day drinking more because of COVID-19, then asking the original question — “Can day drinking increase my risk of becoming an alcoholic?” — is smart.
Can Day Drinking Increase My Risk of Becoming an Alcoholic? Probably
Even if you answered no to every single one of those questions, it’s important to remember that you’re not off the hook. Unlike the coronavirus, AUD isn’t communicable, but when stress pushes individuals to increase their drinking, the brain adapts: “When the brain is exposed to alcohol, it may become tolerant — or insensitive — to alcohol’s effects,” according to the NIAAA . “Thus, as a person continues to drink heavily, he or she may need more alcohol than before to become intoxicated. As tolerance increases, drinking may escalate, putting a heavy drinker at risk for a number of health problems —including alcohol dependence. Even as the brain becomes tolerant to alcohol, other changes in the brain may increase some people’s sensitivity to alcohol. Desire for alcohol may transition into a pathological craving for these effects.”
In other words, the more you drink, the more at risk you may be of developing AUD. And COVID-19 is clearly causing normally moderate drinkers to turn to booze when they normally may not have: “I usually only day-drink when I'm actually at brunch,” Gabrielle Pharms, a 33-year-old in Austin tells the online publication Mic , adding that she just got laid off and is married to a health care worker, two factors that have exacerbated her stress. “It's ‘brunch rules’ at this point, so I’ve become a day drinker.”
It’s important to understand that if you’re not an alcoholic, no one is judging you for using it as a way to cope. Mental health and substance abuse professionals don’t deem everyone who takes a drink as someone in need of alcoholism treatment, but if you’re wondering, “Can day drinking increase my risk of becoming an alcoholic,” then obviously there’s something about your drinking habits during COVID-19 that’s giving you pause.
“Increased drinking may be a coping mechanism some turn to at this time. But if so, it is important to have other, healthier ones as well,” Tim Powell, a Dallas-based therapist and addiction specialist tells Mic . “Substances as the main or only coping skill is not the answer.” In other words, the article points out, “if drinking is the only way you wind down, though, you might have a problem — or develop one down the road.”
But even if an alcohol problem is not an immediate concern, it’s important to remember that you’re quarantined for a specific reason — and that excessive alcohol consumption can affect your ability to stay healthy. “One study from the University of Maryland and Loyola University found that a single episode of binge drinking significantly weakens the body's immune system,” according to the British newspaper the Daily Mail  — meaning too much booze may heighten your susceptibility to the very illness you’re trying to avoid.
Other Health Risks
It’s important to remember that an increased risk of alcoholism isn’t the only concern day drinkers should have when it comes to having margaritas with breakfast or martinis with lunch. Developing an AUD is a legitimate one, but so are other “predictable associated harms, such as domestic violence and child neglect,” according to a report by the Canadian Broadcasting Association .
While clubs and bars are closed and social get-togethers cancelled, with people stockpiling alcohol at home — and many with more time on their hands as they're stuck inside — Paradis says there is the risk of both greater consumption and an increase in predictable associated harms, such as domestic violence and child neglect.
"There's a real risk that people will drink more often and in greater quantity than usual," says Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA). “Right now, in this crisis … boundaries are blurred. So what will that mean when possibly every day feels like a Friday or a Saturday, or there's always an excuse to have a drink, and then you have alcohol in the house?"
And, according to a report on the website The Conversation , there is precedent: “As for long-term effects, a study of the impact of the SARS outbreak on Beijing hospital employees in 2003 found greater likelihood of alcohol abuse or dependence symptoms three years later associated with quarantine or working in high-risk settings such as wards dedicated to treating patients with the respiratory illness. Greater exposure to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was associated with more binge drinking after a year, and higher odds of alcohol dependence one and two years later. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, alcohol consumption rose. After Hurricane Rita, adolescent alcohol use increased in Louisiana. What this suggests is that during the coronavirus crisis, people are putting in place patterns of heavier drinking that will show up in future higher rates of alcohol use disorders.”
That doesn’t mean that everyone who’s cracking open a cold one before a 10 a.m. Zoom meeting is on the fast track to a seat in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting … but it does mean that those who do should proceed with caution. And if you find yourself wondering, “Can day drinking increase my risk of becoming an alcoholic,” know this: The short answer is yes. And if that concerns you, the next question you should ask yourself is, “What are you going to do about it?”