With over half of Irish people saying they drink alcohol more frequently during lockdown, I thought it would be worth writing a few words on the subject of alcohol misuse. Before training to become a counsellor, specialising in addictions, I worked in bars and restaurants, on and off, for around 12 years. I worked in Ireland, Sweden, Germany and New Zealand. One thing I learned on my travels is that, contrary to popular stereotyping, Irish people are not the only ones who tend to drink more than is good for us. We do, however, as a society, have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol - and the stresses and social restrictions of Covid 19 certainly seem to have increased the numbers of people who use alcohol as a way of coping with stress and/or low mood.
Unfortunately, while alcohol does 'take the edge' off stress and provides some mild euphoria (heightened mood) in small doses - it does come with plenty of downsides. Firstly, it is a highly addictive substance, which you can develop a physical dependency on. Secondly, you can develop a psychological/emotional dependency on alcohol as a coping mechanism - an external solution to internal problems (stress, anxiety, low mood, anger). As with many other substances, the body develops a tolerance - meaning that you need to keep increasing the 'dosage' (amount and frequency of drinking), in order to get the desired effect. The body also experiences withdrawal symptoms (anxiety, irritability, low mood, poor sleep, headache, etc.). Tolerance and Withdrawal are the defining features of any addiction.
Most of the people I have worked with, in counselling, around alcohol issues, have no idea what the low-risk weekly guidelines for alcohol are. For men, the guideline limit is 17 Standard Drinks per week (e.g., 8.5 pints of standard strength beer). For women, the guideline weekly limit is 11 Standard Drinks (e.g., 1.5 bottles of wine - where a bottle of wine is considered to contain 7 Standard Drinks). Many of the clients I have worked with, are consuming their weekly limit on a daily basis. The vast majority are parents, in full-time employment. They are 'high-functioning' - and they often have quite severe alcohol problems. Unfortunately, in a culture where this level of alcohol consumption is quite commonplace, it can be difficult to identify if your drinking is problematic. In other words, if most of your friends and family are drinking at a similar level, it starts to look normal. That doesn't mean that it's healthy. Just in terms of calorie content, alone, it's worth thinking about the fact that a bottle of wine is the equivalent of 3 donuts, while a pint of beer equals 1 donut.
Many people are complaining about having difficulty sleeping, during Covid. It's not uncommon for people to use alcohol or other drugs, as a way to get to sleep. Unfortunately, that can spiral into unhealthy levels of alcohol consumption (as tolerance develops) and also doesn't provide you with a good night's sleep, as you metabolise the alcohol in the middle of the night.
While it is understandable for people to reach for the 'quick fix' of the bottle, in times of stress - it can (and often does) end up making a bad situation worse. There are far healthier and more sustainable ways of coping with stress and improving low mood.
If you are concerned about your own drinking, why not try out the HSE's self-assessment tool.
The HSE define the warning signs of an alcohol dependence as:
If you experience the following withdrawal symptoms, when abstaining from drinking, please contact your GP immediately. You may need a medicated detox (this can usually be done at home): shaking hands, nausea, sweating, seizures (fits).
If you would like to speak to one of our counselling team about your drinking, simply fill out the Contact Form and we will arrange a time for a free telephone consultation.
Barry Grant, B.A. Degree in Counselling Skills & Addiction Studies (MAPCP)