How to cut down on quarantine drinking, according to experts
Zoom parties. Quarantinis. Doorstep delivery of wine and spirits. Months into a pandemic that has redefined everyday life in the U.S., a shift in national drinking habits may be emerging. Compared with the same period in 2019, alcohol sales at brick-and-mortar stores jumped by 21% in spring of 2020, while online alcohol sales soared by 234%, Nielsen reports. At first glance, this may seem like the natural result of so many bars and restaurants being shuttered. But there may be more to it than that.
“Many people turn to alcohol or other substances during times of high stress,” says clinical psychologist Heather Patterson Myer, PsyD, founder of Greenhouse Psychology & Wellness in Durham, North Carolina. “A global pandemic certainly fits the definition of a high-stress event.”
If you’ve found yourself drinking more than usual lately and you want to scale back, the following strategies may be helpful. Just note that a pattern of excessive drinking could be a sign of an alcohol use disorder that warrants one-on-one support from a pro. Read on for some starter approaches to curbing intake, followed by additional resources, if needed.
Assess your starting point
With cocktail refills right from your kitchen, it’s easy to lose track of how much drinking happens at home. So Dr. Meyer recommends measuring and tallying intake as a first step in scaling back. “Counting your alcoholic drinks can increase your insight into how much you are consuming,” she explains. Keep a running total for a few days in a note on your phone or by tracking in the WW app.
“Once you have a sense of your general consumption, setting a limit for yourself ahead of time can help you stay within your desired [intake level],” Dr. Meyer says. The latest federal dietary guidelines define moderate drinking as no more than one or two drinks in any given day, depending on your sex assigned at birth. Using that as a general guide, decide what makes sense for you: Maybe you opt to steer clear of alcohol altogether. Or, you may choose to cut back—for example, from seven drinks a week to four.
Tell people your plan
Family and friends can impose pressures to drink, whether overtly (“Tequila shots for everyone!”) or in more subtle ways—say, by automatically setting out wine glasses at dinner. “If you're concerned that others will playfully give you a hard time or offer you drinks regularly, try being direct and letting them know your plan,” says Allison Grupski, PhD, WW’s director of behavior change. “Making it clear that you're making a conscious choice can relieve some of the pressure you might feel.”
Do an emotional scan
Anxiety, loneliness, boredom...Difficult emotions can nudge us toward alcohol, sometimes without our fully realizing it. “Try asking yourself, ‘How am I feeling?’ before taking a drink,” Dr. Meyer says. A quick self-audit creates an opportunity to decide whether alcohol makes sense for you in that moment, she explains. “If one uses alcohol as a source of occasional enjoyment and not to mask emotions or cope with reality, alcohol can certainly fit into a balanced life pattern.”
Plan ahead with ways to care for yourself if things feel hard and a drink isn’t the best choice for you, Dr. Meyer says. For example, if you’re feeling anxious, you might enact a plan to call a friend, spend time writing in a journal, or listen to music instead.
Set time boundaries
In addition to formulating limits on how many drinks to have, making a plan for when to imbibe can be useful, too. “Implementing clear, specific, and well-defined time boundaries helps increase our awareness and [maintain] limits,” Dr. Meyer says.
If, for example, you’ve set a cap of three drinks per week, map out a strategy beforehand: Would you prefer to enjoy one drink with each of three dinners? Or maybe you’d like to have a few beers with friends during a long weekend camping trip coming up. Deciding in advance when to drink can make bypassing the booze easier at other times, Dr. Meyer says.
Similar to how mindful eating can help you consume more consciously, less automatically, and with more pleasure, mindfulness practices can support goals for reduced drinking, too, Dr. Meyer says. “Slowing down the process, being in the moment, and enjoying the experience has many benefits, including limiting intake,” she explains. If you decide to imbibe, pace yourself and be present, she says. Savoring the nuances of a Left Bank Bordeaux or the crisp taste of a cold pilsner helps reduce the odds of a “whoops, I drank too much, too quickly” buzz.
Establish other rituals
Routines are important for creating rhythm in our days, especially when we’re sheltering at home with tons of unstructured time, Dr. Meyer says. But a daily drinking ritual—for example, marking the end of each workday with a martini or two—might not be best for you right now. Alternative ways to “clock out” after work might include leaving your desk and going outdoors for some physical movement; powering down your laptop and lighting a candle; or prepping a delicious dinner. These repeatable rituals allow you to break up the day without reaching for a drink.
If you end up drinking more than you wanted to on any particular occasion, try not to beat yourself up (“Ugh, what’s wrong with me?”). We’re all human, and our intentions don't always go as planned, Dr. Grupski says. Her advice for moving forward: “Try putting on your curiosity hat, like an objective observer,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘How and when did my plan go awry? What happened leading up to [that]?’" Connecting the dots between how our environment, thoughts, and feelings impact our choices is a nonjudgmental response that can better inform the plan for next time.
If you find that DIY approaches to curbing alcohol intake aren’t effective, a conversation with your doctor might be a good idea. Or, check out the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)—they offer a 24/7 hotline at 1-800-662-4357 for anyone who’d like more information on alcohol use or help finding a local treatment provider.
Food writer and journalist Brigid Washington is the author of the cookbook Coconut Ginger Shrimp Rum: Caribbean Flavors for Every Season. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Food & Wine, and Epicurious.