Q: While isolated at home and stressed in the pandemic, I’ve been drinking a lot more than usual. I notice that many of my friends are doing the same, so my ramped-up consumption seems normal. But I have my doubts: How do I know if I'm actually drinking too much?
Data shows that many people have accelerated their alcohol consumption in the pandemic as a coping strategy, or even in response to flat-out boredom while isolated at home. In fact, one Morning Consult report found that 16% of adults were drinking more during the pandemic — and that was in April. Another study from RAND found that the number of women drinking heavily has increased by 41%. The longer the pandemic drags on, the more people are likely to continue to consume more than normal.
Not just that, but search data shows that people aren’t just noticing they’re drinking more, but they’re also worried about it — even if they’re only sharing that concern with their web browsers. Searches such as “alcohol withdrawal” and similar queries have spiked in 2020, after increasing steadily over the past five years.
But muddying the picture here is the widespread normalization of drinking, especially in the pandemic. It’s always “wine o’clock” somewhere on social media, where we’re desperately trying to find connections as an antidote to social isolation. Plus, we’re all under a lot of bona fide stress—and who couldn’t use a weekday happy hour (which seems to keep edging ever earlier)?
So here’s how to unpack how much is too much — and why it matters.
What’s normal and what’s not?
Pause for a moment and actually take stock of how much you’ve been drinking on a given day or week lately. Federal dietary guidelines define moderate alcohol consumption as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. So if you’re keeping within that range, you’re likely fine.
Now, here’s what high-risk drinking looks like:
- Heavy drinking means consuming eight or more drinks per week for women.
- For men, heavy drinking means 15 or more drinks per week.
- Binge drinking is when the average woman consumes about four or more drinks in a single occasion, or five for men, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Even more practically, just consider this: Is your drinking causing problems in your relationships? At work? Or making you feel bad overall? If so, it might be time to think about scaling back.
Why does it matter?
There are real risks involved with drinking too much, beyond just run-of-the-mill, short-term side effects like blowing your diet or texting someone you maybe wish you hadn’t. Over time, too much alcohol can contribute to the development of chronic diseases and mental health problems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over the long term:
- Heavy drinking can cause heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.
- It’s hard on your liver, and can lead to liver diseases, including cirrhosis.
- Excessive alcohol use can contribute to various types of cancer. Consume less alcohol, reduce your cancer risk overall.
How can you cut back?
The good news is that you’ve already taken a major step by evaluating your situation. That mindfulness is important. Now you can monitor your daily consumption and make a goal to keep it within the CDC’s guidelines.
Here are some other things that can help:
- Write it down. Try keeping a drinking diary to hold yourself accountable and compare your real consumption against your goals.
- Find simple ways to cut back your consumption. If you’re mixing drinks at home, measure out a half portion of alcohol before adding it to your cup.
- When you’d be inclined to go for a drink, try an alternative stress reliever instead. Focus your mind on a puzzle (another favorite pandemic go-to), or dig into a craft or home-improvement project.
- Get exercise. Even simply walking is therapeutic. And heavier exertion can help blow off major steam.
- Give yourself a break. Yes, these are stressful times. If you exceed the recommended consumption limit once, be kind to yourself—and recommit to your efforts.