Safer Drinking During Desperate Times

    We are all doing our best to adjust to the new “normal” in the COVID-19 era, while still trying to meet the demands of everyday life, work, bills, family, school, friendships and self-care. Many us continue to work, but millions of us have lost our jobs and too many of us are struggling to make ends meet. For many, caretaking responsibilities have intensified with no schools or childcare. For people living alone, social distancing may contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Routines have been disrupted. We’re worriedabout our own health and the well-being of our communities. Boredom also looms.

    How we collectively adapt to these changes and new stressors remains to be seen. For many of us, alcohol may be a part of our coping strategy.

    Most Americans who drink usually do so safely. SAMHSA’s 2018 data show that of 179 million of us who consumed alcohol that year, 112 million did not engage in “binge drinking” (four drinks or more on one occasion for women, or five for men). Before sheltering in place, many of us would simply enjoy a drink to wind down at the end of the day, a couple of drinks at a party, wine with dinner, a nightcap before bed, drinking while watching the game, or a few rounds of shots at happy hour. At the same time, we know that problematic substance use does not impact all sections of society equally, and that incidence and outcomes are worse for people with socioeconomic stressors.

    While adjusting to the changes of the past weeks, have you noticed yourself drinking more than usual? You are not the only one. Alcohol sales are soaring, virtual happy hours are a new norm and alcohol delivery apps are a thing. Potential harms range all the way from mild hangovers to impacted relationships or severe health challenges.

    Whether you are actively concerned about your drinking habits over the past few weeks or just want to be a more mindful drinker during these challenging times, we want to share some tips for safer drinking that you might find useful. (For more information, check out the book How to Change Your Drinking or the HAMS website. We also have a book of member stories titled Better Is Better.)


    Identify how your drinking has changed.

    Try to remember what your average pre-coronavirus drinking pattern was. How many days a week did you drink, and how did you decide which nights to drink? How many drinks per occasion? Compare this to your drinking over the past few weeks. Are you drinking more often? More drinks per occasion? If your pattern has changed, ask yourself which factors (emotional, situational, social, etc.) have contributed to this. 


    Set clear drinking goals.

    You can use the chart below to define moderation, or you can set a completely different goal of your own, remembering that “better is better.” Whatever goal you set, make it as realistic as possible: within your budget; not so far from your previous level of drinking as to cause withdrawal; and possible for you to maintain while in close contact with family (who we may be at home with for a long time!), or under the stress of being an essential worker on the front lines of fighting the pandemic.  

    This chart from the HAMS website describes drinking and risk levels:


    Chart your drinks.

    Once you’ve set your drinking goal, chart your drinks, including the time of day when you consume them. Sample charts can be found in Chapter 13: Charting and Measuring, of How to Change Your Drinking.  


    Start later in the day.

    The later you start, the less time you’ll have to drink before bed. If you find you are likely to want to continue to drink once you’ve had one, the later you start, the easier it will be to stick to your goal.


    Build in abstinence days (if this is safe for you).

    If you’ve been in the habit of drinking dailybut are not a very heavy drinker at risk of withdrawalbuilding in abstinence days will help break the body’s craving for alcohol at a certain time. It will also build your confidence that you can go without alcohol if you need to or choose to. Alternating abstinence days with drinking days may be a good way to start.


    Take advantage of the change in routine.

    Many of us have daily or weekly events that signal us to drink. Coming home from work in the evening calls for a glass of wine. Watching a game calls for a round of beers. The weekend means a bender. But many if not all of these cues will be removed during this pandemic. Take advantage of this to change your own drinking routine. 


    Talk back to “If X, then I have to drink” thinking. 

    Even during ordinary times, many of us see certain events as reasons why we must drink. Arguments with a partner. Problems at work or lack of work. Sudden changes in our life circumstances. This time will be full of events that seem to require drinking. Who wouldn’t want to numb out the reality we’re facing? To practice safer drinking, we have to talk back to those thoughts.

    Break the “if, then” loop by saying: “I always have a choice.” Repeat it over and over again, like a mantra. Speak to yourself in the affirmativeabout what you can do—in an empowering voice. There are many things that we can’t control during this pandemic: Whether and how we drink is different.  


    If you slip, don’t beat yourself up. Just get back on track!

    In HAMS, you don’t “lose” your time because you slip, whether in terms of days of abstinence, moderation or safer drinking. No one should expect perfection. The key is to learn from the slipwhat do I do next time X, Y or Z happens?and get back on track. It might be helpful to try to forget that the slip even happened. Focusing on the negative only reinforces the belief that you are powerless over alcohol: a prophecy that is usually self-fulfilling.  


    Get support!

    HAMS is an entirely internet-based, worldwide support group for anyone trying to change their drinking. Through our Facebook groups—including HAMS for Women, Alcohol-Free HAMS, and others as well as the main HAMS groupwe provide 24-hour support. Whether you are in crisis or just need others to talk with, HAMS is available. Since we have members in every continent, you can find support at any hour of the day or night. 

    Communicating with friends and family on the internet can be an excellent source of support as well, but there’s something different about talking with others who share the same issues. We are a non-judgmental organization that supports all goalswhether it’s moderation, abstinence or safer drinking. And we’re always here.  


    Photo by Joe Hepburn on Unsplash

    • April Wilson Smith is the director of organizational development for Harm Reduction, Abstinence and Moderation Support (HAMS), an international group that supports people in harm reduction approaches to their alcohol consumption. She has a Master’s in Public Health from Thomas Jefferson University. She presented her thesis research on the experiences of LGBT people in traditional 12-step rehabs at the National Harm Reduction Conference in 2016.


      Kenneth Anderson is the founder and CEO of HAMS. He is the author of How to Change Your Drinking.

    • Show Comments

    You May Also Like

    The Invisible Majority: People Whose Drug Use Is Not Problematic

    For years, Mark* woke up each morning, made breakfast for his two young children, ...

    In 2018, the Temperance Movement Still Grips America

    Our society—even some of its most progressive elements—vilifies alcohol. This stands in opposition to ...