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October 24, 2021

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How to spot — and help remedy — increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic

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It’s been a long three months since the start of the pandemic, and we are by no means out of the woods. Social isolation, economic insecurity and health concerns make for a perfect storm of stressors that many of us are experiencing right now. If you’ve been living with a spouse or a partner during lockdown, you will most likely be the first to notice any changes in behavior.

Adaptive ways to manage stress

There are many ways we can manage stress during the pandemic without turning to maladaptive behaviors, says UNLV’s Sara Jordan. She notes, however, that these are unprecedented times, so if you do experience anxiety or depression that you can’t manage on your own, make an appointment with your doctor. Otherwise, here are some activities you can try with your partner while social distancing.

• Spend time in nature. Being in the open air is one of the safer activities we can do right now. Go hiking or take a long drive.

• Work out at home. Challenge each other to try different methods. There are plenty of options on YouTube, from yoga to boot camp-type workouts.

• Talk to your support network. Stay in touch with family and friends. Social isolation is not healthy for anyone, and maladaptive behaviors thrive when we don’t have outside support.

• Develop a new hobby. Whether it’s baking or putting together a jigsaw puzzle, try to find an activity you both enjoy.

“Any vulnerability that an individual had is going to be squeezed during this time,” says Merlelynn Harris, clinical director of Bridge Counseling Associates, a nonprofit that provides individual and family counseling in Southern Nevada. “So whether it’s alcoholism, something non-substance related, even as simple as impatience and irritability, if that was there before, it’s definitely coming out now. … Whether we’re doing more at-risk behaviors out of boredom, or out of stress or out of anxiety or even out of a trauma response, it’s usually their loved ones that will notice that it’s a problem behavior, rather than the individual.”

Excessive use of alcohol is a particularly common maladaptive behavior, as it begins easily enough as a stress reliever but can, over time, develop into something more serious, and have significant medical and psychological consequences. During the pandemic, alcohol use has been made light of—there are memes and tweets about people making “quarantinis” and jokes about drinking before 5 p.m. now that they’re working from home. Zoom virtual happy hours have become a way to let off steam with friends and coworkers. And liquor stores offering delivery and curbside pickup haven’t suffered from lack of business—nationally, sales of wine, beer and spirits are higher compared with a year ago, according to market research firm Nielsen.

But when does a way to release tension become a more serious problem? According to the British Journal of General Practice, “Harmful drinking is defined as a pattern of alcohol consumption causing health problems directly related to alcohol. Alcohol dependence is characterized by craving, tolerance, a preoccupation with alcohol and continued drinking in spite of harmful consequences.”

External behavioral events, like a DUI or being kicked out of the house, often lead couples to seek help. But Harris notes that in a lot of households, codependency can occur in which couples minimize the significance of the problem, and that’s especially dangerous during times of social isolation. “It might have spiked, especially during COVID. And now they’re trying to figure out what to do or how to handle it,” she says.

Associate professor Sara Jordan, program director of couple and family therapy at UNLV, says a notable change in behavior is your biggest clue in determining whether your partner is consuming too much alcohol, and that the actual amount of consumption can vary from person to person. “Factors such as body weight, tolerance and age play a role,” she says, “[but] if you notice your partner is consuming more than their usual, it might be helpful to seek the services of a mental health professional with experience in substance use disorders.”

With help from such a specialist, couples can learn the tools to start a difficult conversation without it devolving into a blame game, since being blamed can be perceived as being attacked. “A lot of couples don’t realize having conversations about difficult subjects is usually a skill,” Harris says. “So whether it’s problem drinking, our finances, our sex life, our parenting style, there are some skills required in being able to talk about really sensitive issues. Individuals willing to learn those skills can have those conversations and can stay on the issue.”

Harris usually teaches couples active listening skills, which she calls an untapped resource. This entails not interrupting the other person, using nonthreatening body language and asking clarifying questions. When you ask your partner a question and they respond, slow down the communication process by not immediately reacting or paraphrasing what they said, Harris says.

Starting the conversation at the right time can be just as important. Both Harris and Jordan stress approaching your partner when they’re not intoxicated, as they will be less defensive and more open to what you’re saying. Come into the conversation as nonjudgmental and nonaccusatory as possible. The one assumption we all have of a healthy relationship is that we want to be part of the solution if our partner is struggling.

“I know it sounds so ridiculous, but sometimes it’s as simple as just being kind to each other,” Harris says.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.