If you noticed that your bar cart was emptying out quickly near the start of the pandemic, you're not alone. People — women in particular — were drinking a lot more over the last couple of years. And for some, to a dangerous degree. But alcohol has long been an issue, with one recent study suggesting that the problem was even bad pre-COVID: when alcohol accounted for one in five deaths in the US among people between the ages of 20 and 49, from 2015 to 2019.
A strong urge to drink is a trend that’s consistent with what more than 400 Skimm’rs told us in a poll last year (shared in this Skimm This episode): that drinking alcohol is the pandemic habit they most want to kick.
But today more people are becoming sober curious. Just as a study is rejecting the idea that ‘a glass of red wine (or any alcohol) is good for your heart.’ Celebrities (see: Bella Hadid, Katy Perry, Blake Lively) were selling their new nonalcoholic drinks during a particularly dry January, and some people are trying out alcohol-free dating. The verdict’s out on if sobriety is going mainstream, but at HQ we’ve started to ask ourselves: “Would my life be better if I drank less?”
That’s something that licensed counselor and author of “Not Drinking Tonight” Amanda E. White has her patients answer. And she talked to us all about how to recognize — and address — a potentially unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
Signs and symptoms of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol can include…
An urge to drink more than before. Whether that’s in one sitting or throughout the week, in order to feel the same effect that you’re used to.
A negative impact on your personal and professional life. That could mean anything from hurting your job performance to getting in the way of how reliable you are as a friend.
Anxiety. Your brain produces feel-good chemicals (like dopamine) when you drink. But it could reduce the number of dopamine receptors in the brain over time. Cue the long-term hangxiety. “If you keep drinking, you will have less dopamine in your brain, which is directly linked to anxiety and depression,” White says.
Poor sleep. A whiskey could knock you out, but that might also keep you from hitting deep sleep stages, which are important for your physical and mental health.
Blackouts. A high level of alcohol in your body could interfere with your ability to remember things while you're intoxicated. These are blackouts and they’re different from passing out. Research has shown that long-term heavy drinking can also damage your brain.
Issues in the bedroom. Like interfering with your ability to reach orgasm. Or making you less inhibited so you hook up with someone you otherwise wouldn’t. Despite popular belief, White says it’s not necessarily the case that alcohol makes you “more outgoing or more fun… And it's not an aphrodisiac. What alcohol does is it kind of turns off the frontal lobe of your brain, which is responsible for questioning things and keeping you safe.”
A weakened immune system. You might catch colds or the flu more easily than others.
Other health complications. From an increased risk of cancer, pancreatitis, and diabetes complications, to heart conditions, digestive issues, and decreased bone health. Liver disease, in particular, has become a much bigger issue for millennials in the past decade.
Mixing alcohol with certain medications. Whether they’re OTC or prescription drugs, mixing can be harmful, if not deadly.
Why "alcoholic" probably doesn’t describe your situation…
It doesn’t have a clear definition. Because it’s not a diagnosis in the DSM-5, a book that therapists and psychiatrists use to diagnose patients, says White. Adding, “It’s kind of an outdated word."
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a term more widely accepted now. And a person can have a mild, moderate, or severe case. But it also might make sense to not use words like that altogether. Because…
Labels can be stigmatizing. While terms that describe issues with alcohol can be helpful for people who want to feel understood and diagnosed, “they can also be really limiting because people don’t always fit into a box,” says White.
What puts someone at higher risk for an unhealthy relationship with alcohol…
Genetics. If someone in your family struggles with alcohol or addiction, you might be more prone to it. “We don't know a ton about exactly how that all happens, but some of us just have a much stronger, positive sensation in the brain that comes when we drink alcohol,” says White.
Trauma. “If you have an experience where alcohol feels like an emotional solution to your life…you’re much more likely to abuse alcohol,” White says.
Drinking culture. There’s wine mom culture and “white girl ‘rosé all day’ culture,” says White. Not to mention social activities like happy hours and reality TV shows like “Real Housewives” and “The Bachelor,” which showcase (and sell) wine guzzling. And name more than one US holiday that doesn’t involve alcohol. We’ll wait.
COVID-19. Millennial women — and moms in particular — have been impacted by the pandemic. They’ve felt an unprecedented amount of stress. And many have turned to drinking as a way to cope. We see you, Ina Garten.
If you think you might be better off without alcohol, you should…
Consider why you drink. Think about how alcohol is serving you, and also what it’s costing you. Put together an “honest” pros/cons list, White suggests.
Remember that you don’t need to hit rock bottom before you take a break. Even if you’re not someone who drinks every day. Or every weekend. You might still feel like your life would be better without as much alcohol. Just a thought.
Consider being ‘sober curious.’ The term comes from the 2018 book by Ruby Warrington. It means that even if you don’t think you’re addicted to alcohol, you try avoiding it for a bit. Like it’s a new healthy habit you’re testing out. So trendy.
Take a month off. Try a dry month and see how you feel. Maybe you don’t miss drinking. Maybe you want to continue but in moderation.
Try swapping a cocktail for a mocktail. There are a few new alcohol-free options to choose from. Note: This might not be a fit for someone with AUD who could be triggered by sipping something that tastes similar to alcohol, White says.
See your PCP. You could get an evaluation for AUD. And if you get a diagnosis, you could consider treatment and whether a medicine like naltrexone might help curb your drinking habits.
Talk to a therapist. Whether you get an AUD diagnosis or not, your doc could refer you to a therapist who specializes in substance use disorders (like White).
Look into a recovery program and/or sober community. It’s 2022. AA isn’t your only option. There are programs like Tempest (from the author behind “Quit Like a Woman”) and The Luckiest Club, which have virtual courses and meetings. And sober communities are also out there. See: Retired Party Girl, Sober Mom Squad, and Club Soda.
Prep for the ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’ question. If you’re laying off liquor at a place where everyone else will be drinking, skip the fake excuses. Because saying, ‘Oh, I’m the DD,’ might make people want to offer you their couch, an Uber ride, or more drinks. Instead, try something “short and sweet,” White says. Like, “I don’t feel like drinking tonight” or “I’m just taking a break from drinking.”
You don’t need to have an obvious drinking "problem" to assess your relationship with alcohol — just like you don’t need to have insomnia to talk about your sleep habits. You just need to ask yourself: “Would my life be better with less alcohol?” Being sober curious and setting boundaries around when and how you drink could help you find the answer.
Updated on March 30 to include new study about moderate drinking and cardiovascular health.
Updated on November 2 to include a new study on alcohol deaths.
Subscribe to Skimm Well
Sign up here to receive our wellness newsletter filled with actionable advice, expert-vetted content, product recs, and more — delivered directly to your inbox.