Increased COVID-19 alcohol use has been linked to more, not less, corona-anxiety. It’s time to find a new adaptive method. Have you considered “positive reframing”?
By Sophia Dokyoung You, Ph.D.August 15, 2020
Since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ve all experienced elevated stress levels. Not only do most of us fear getting coronavirus, the pandemic has seeped into other parts of daily life, such as social isolation, our finances, exposure to tragic news, and many more.
Unfortunately, the number of new cases and death in the United States and worldwide is soaring, as of this publishing. Experts anticipate a long battle against the COVID-19 until treatment and a vaccine are available. Which means it will be a while before we can return to our pre-COVID lifestyles.
So, the critical question is: no matter where you or your loved ones are in the recovery process, how are you going to get through this pandemic? If you haven’t yet, it’s time to develop a healthy coping strategy to help you adapt to the stress of our changed world.
“Study: When heavy drinkers get COVID-19, they are more likely to go on a mechanical ventilator, stay in the intensive care unit for an extended time, and die from the virus infection.”
Future guidance will come from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which recently announced it had received funding to study the impact of stress management strategies on U.S. individuals during this pandemic. I’ll keep an eye out for their findings and report back in the future.
In the meantime, let’s look at just-released findings of a Poland study—the first in the world that I am aware of. In May 2020, researchers in Poland released initial learnings from their longitudinal survey on managing COVID-19 anxiety, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. They found that of the total 443 survey responders, alcohol was the most commonly used substances (73%)—and 14% of the total said their drinking had increased after the springtime lockdown. Compared to people who reported drinking the same or less in the study, those who said they were drinking more reported an increase in depressive symptoms and dysfunctional daily life
Rather than reaching for a drink to release stress, those who reportedly maintained or reduced alcohol levels during Covid-19 said they used a strategy the study calls “positive reframing.” Positive reframing refers to the ability to find an uplifting way to look at a stressful situation. For example, you may worry about contracting the potentially life-threatening virus and feeling isolated, and at the same time, you can also acknowledge that you are OK at this moment, and you feel grateful about spending more time with loved ones. This technique is also called “cognitive restructuring” and can be learned as part of your treatment care strategy through an approach called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). If you can’t think of any positive aspects of your life, are noticing yourself abusing alcohol or feeling depressed, talk to your doctor and/or treatment professionals and consider engaging in CBT.
Rather than reaching for a drink to release stress, those who reportedly maintained or reduced alcohol levels during COVID-19 said they used a strategy the study calls ‘positive reframing.’ Positive reframing refers to the ability to find an uplifting way to look at a stressful situation.”
Notably, the Polish study’s findings are the early result of a longitudinal survey, meaning it’s a sneak-peek snapshot of how people are coping at just one point of the coronavirus. Therefore, this study cannot inform us about whether positive reframing can help to reduce alcohol use, in addiction to stress. We need to wait for the final results.
Although, if I tap into a bit of positive reframing myself, we do have evidence from other studies showing a link between cognitive restructuring and people reducing and preventing alcohol use.
Not only does it not help ease pandemic stress, drinking may actually increase your risk of harm if you were to get COVID-19. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recently posted information showing that heavy drinking can damage the lung cells and make the immune system less effective to fight for COVID-19. Heavy drinkers who get COVID-19 are more likely to go on a mechanical ventilator, stay in the intensive care unit for an extended time, and die from the virus infection.
Our battle with COVID-19 is not going to end soon. As we all wait for good news about the development of a vaccine, stick to your recovery plan, stay connected to your emotional well-being, develop a healthy coping strategy that works for you, and reach out to your healthcare providers about adaptive ways to help manage stress.
Just don’t reach for that drink. It won’t help—we have proof.
Sophia Dokyoung You, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist at Stanford Pain Management Center and a researcher at Stanford Systems Neuroscience and Pain Lab. Previously, she worked as a registered nurse at Cleveland Clinic and a research nurse at Ohio State University, Clinical Trials Office. Dr. You received her master’s and doctoral degree in clinical psychology at Texas A&M University, completed post-doctoral training at Stanford, and received a Mentored Patient-Oriented Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health.