When Americans stocked up in March in anticipation of business and school closings, they bought more than just toilet paper. According to marketing research firm Nielsen U.S. sales of alcohol rose 55% the week of March 21, and online sales rose an astonishing 243%. While the increased sales may be attributed to ‘stocking up’ prior to sheltering in place orders, it is also possible that alcohol use has increased during the pandemic. Sometimes the reasons for increased alcohol use can be pinpointed to a holiday, festive occasion, celebration, or more closely related to different life stages like binge drinking among young, college-aged adults.
However, today we are all managing through a health crisis unlike any we’ve ever seen. That comes with feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, concern for loved ones, and sorrow surrounding a tragic loss of life. Furthermore, millions of American workers have lost employment, or their roles have been furloughed.
More than ever before, we are figuring out how to cope with isolation, economic downturn, cancellation of the school year, loss of income, and the unseen dangers of being out in public. Some may choose yoga, painting, or photography to occupy their minds while others start using alcohol or drugs to relax, or cap off a tough day. Everything in moderation, right? Well yes, however sometimes our heightened and quickly changing emotions can cause moderate alcohol use to turn into substance abuse.
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Trauma is a trigger for substance abuse
With the COVID-19 health emergency, we are witnessing trauma. We cope and manage our feelings in various ways, yet there is no escaping the trauma being felt across the world. Understanding that trauma is a trigger for substance abuse is key to knowing that alcohol abuse has the potential to become full-fledged addiction.
According to research from the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there is a strong correlation between trauma and substance abuse. For those who have experienced trauma and struggle with some form of PTSD or anxiety-related disorder, they may ask themselves if life would be easier at the end of a pipe or the bottom of a bottle. Addiction is sometimes pigeon-holed as the result of immaturity or reckless decision-making, but it’s not that simple. Science shows that addiction is a brain disease and drugs literally change how the brain works. These lifelong changes may lead to harmful behavior by those caught in the vicious cycle of substance abuse.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health provides key insights on what alcohol dependency looks like in our population. An estimated 14.8 million people aged 12 or older in 2018 had an alcohol use disorder, which corresponds to 5.4% of the U.S. population.
Alcohol awareness month
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence started an initiative that is now supported by affiliates across the country to promote awareness about the dangers of alcohol dependence in our society. During the month of April, many organizations will bring to light the struggles caused by alcohol misuse and offer ways to help, especially in communities harder hit by alcoholism.
With the COVID-19 health emergency, people suffering with substance use issues are particularly at risk. Among the myths circulating these days—including the idea that cell towers spread the coronavirus or that being able to hold your breath for a very long time means you aren’t infected—is the misguided idea that heavy alcohol consumption can help rid your body of the coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stepped in to debunk these myths, especially specific to alcohol. What is not a myth is the damage caused by extensive alcohol consumption over time to your body and immune system.
Alcohol awareness month is in April, but our collective awareness of misusing alcohol should remain a year-round initiative. During times of heightened stress and trauma, we may be more vulnerable to developing bad habits, losing sleep, and coping with stress by misusing substances like alcohol and drugs. As the pandemic curve peaks and flattens, people will return to what we called regular life, and with that, we will go back to work.
Employers can start preparing for what’s to come. Workers may need support through Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) or other benefits. And employers need peace of mind knowing their organizations are bringing back employees or hiring applicants who are drug-free. The benefits a robust drug-free workplace program should not be overlooked, but should instead be fortified.
If you or someone you know is unable to stop using drugs or alcohol, seek a referral from your primary care physician or locate an addiction specialist through the American Society of Addiction Medicine.