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Using alcohol to cope with stress during COVID-19 pandemic

All stress management experts tell us that taking care of the physical body is crucial. The advice to eat well, get regular exercise and enough sleep is combined with reminding us to limit our alcohol consumption. How have Canadians been doing with the use of alcohol to cope with COVID-19 stress? What are the safe drinking guidelines?  What resources are available to help if increased or excessive alcohol use has become the way to cope with stress during this COVID-19 pandemic?

Canadians’ alcohol use during pandemic

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction did a poll of Canadians in May 2020. Here are the main results:

  • The majority of Canadians (almost 80 %) say their alcohol consumption is about the same or less than it was before the pandemic.
  • About 20% (almost 1 in 5 ) of Canadians who drink alcohol and have been staying at home more due to the COVID-19 pandemic say they have been drinking alcohol once a day since the beginning of May.
  • For men, more than 1 in 10 men (11.7%)reported drinking five or more drinks on the days on which they drank.
  • For women, 1 in 10 women (11.7%) reported four or more drinks on the days on which they drank. On average, female consumers of alcohol are reporting 2.4 alcoholic drinks per occasion — which is above the low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines — and about 12% are reporting they consume alcohol in excess when they drink.
  • Stress and boredom are the main reported reasons for increases in alcohol consumption.

Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines.

Many people are unaware of these guidelines. They can be used to monitor consumption. According to the guidelines, men should have no more than three standard drinks per day with a maximum of 15 drinks per week and women should have no more than two standard drinks per day with a maximum of 10 drinks per week.

What is a standard drink?

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse defines a standard drink as a drink that contains “17.05 ml or 13.45 g of pure alcohol.” The following are equal to one standard drink:

  • 341 mL (12 oz) bottle of 5% beer, cider, or cooler
  • 142 mL (5 oz) glass of 12% wine
  • 43 mL (1.5 oz) shot of 40% distilled alcohol

Are these guidelines surprising? It is not how many drinks per day you consume that is of importance, but how much alcohol you consume. In other words, a glass of vodka on ice accounts for much more than just “one drink.” If you are concerned, you may want to take this quiz.

When is it not safe to drink alcohol?

  • Before or while operating any kind of vehicle, tools, or machinery
  • While taking medications (both prescription or over-the-counter) or other drugs that interact with alcohol
  • When engaging in sports or other potentially dangerous physical activities,
  • When working or making important decisions
  • If you are pregnant or planning to be, before breastfeeding,
  • While responsible for the care or supervision of others,
  • If you are living with physical and/or mental health issues or alcohol dependence.

Harm reduction recommendations

  • Eat before and while drinking alcohol
  • Do not consume more than 2 alcoholic drinks within a three hour period.
  • Schedule alcohol-free days throughout the week in order to avoid developing a habit of consuming alcohol on a regular basis.

Alcohol is not an effective coping mechanism

You probably already know this, but/and it bears repeating- drinking alcohol is not an effective coping mechanism. There are more effective and healthy coping mechanisms that can be used over the longer term to manage stress.

The over-consumption of alcohol is as serious as any other medical condition. According to The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse,

 “After tobacco,​​​ alcohol is the substance that causes the most harm in Canada…The over-consumption of alcohol can cause chronic health conditions (such as some cancers and cirrhosis of the liver), diseases, injury and death.”

 ​​Addiction can also cause financial issues and relationship strain or conflict within the family.

Where to go for more information and help

A new resource, Virtual Care for Mental Health and Substance Use During COVID-19, highlights the importance of seeking care and support early on, and provides information on how to access the many virtual care options available to help people in Canada, including the federal government’s  Wellness Together Canada portal.

If you or someone you know is using alcohol to cope with stress, you can also consult with a health care professional  or call your local helpline  for information about treatment for addiction.

You may want to learn more about substance use and addictions in general.

What surprises you most about Canadians’ alcohol use or the safe drinking guidelines?


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