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Knocking back too many 'quarantinis'? Here's how to keep drinking in check

Your home bar has never been better stocked, but are you maintaining healthy drinking habits while under lockdown?
Image: A man raises a glass to toast.
Swap lower ABV wines (12% or 13% max), spritzes and spirit-free cocktails into your drinks rotation. H. Armstrong Roberts / Retrofile / Getty Images

It’s not just hand sanitizer and toilet paper that have been flying off the shelves — alcohol has been selling like crazy too. As more people began sheltering in their homes throughout the month of March to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, retail alcohol sales in the U.S. started to rise along with sales of cleaning products, TP, and food, showing just how important our drinking rituals are even (and maybe especially) in a crisis.

COVID-19’s effect on alcohol sales

Compared with March 2019, retail sales of alcohol saw a big spike across all categories from wine and spirits to beer and hard cider, according to Nielsen, a global marketing research firm based in New York City — and it doesn’t look like this trend is about to stop either.

At this point, 46 states have either closed or limited the operations of restaurants and bars. And in many of the states that have enacted sweeping closures of nonessential businesses, liquor stores — along with grocery stores, pharmacies, and hospitals — have been designated “essential” and are permitted to stay open.

While the spike in sales may be good for the alcohol industry (which is taking a big hit in its on-premise sector), the stockpiling of booze may not be good for everybody.

The problem with alcohol and catastrophic events

Making the most of being quarantined at home means making an effort to maintain some normalcy — and pleasure. If you’re someone who looks forward to a little tipple at the end of the day, it’s reasonable to stock up (the fewer trips to the store, the better). But Wendy McClary, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Vermont and Massachusetts, says that the rise in alcohol sales is something to watch very carefully.

It can be tempting to self-medicate with alcohol. “In small quantities,” says McClary, “alcohol can help reduce anxiety, but it’s mainly a depressant.” With the threat of the deadly coronavirus and all the havoc it’s wreaking, people are feeling anxious. Their typical routines have also been disrupted. This, she says, can create a scenario where the usual rules no longer apply.

Under normal circumstances, says McClary, “most adults who drink are able to do so within responsible limits.” But studies show that catastrophic events can trigger increased substance use. “In the aftermath of 9/11,” she explains, “there was significantly increased use of alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes among New York City residents. In particular, there was a major increase of use in individuals — such as social drinkers — who’d used the substances previously.”

Excessive drinking can also weaken your immune response, which can increase your risk for respiratory illnesses and other conditions, says Samantha Cassetty, a New York City-based registered dietitian. “Many people are surprised to learn that heavy drinking is considered eight drinks per week for women and 15 drinks for men.”

Too much alcohol can lead to feelings of depression, anger, hopelessness and powerlessness — and domestic violence, which McClary says is a real concern at a time when many families are cooped up together under stressful circumstances. Another reason to moderate drinking, she says, is that “our children are watching every move we make — and they’re learning about what it means to interact with the world as adults by our example.”

How to keep drinking in check while sheltering in place

“As long as you’re healthy,” says Cassetty, “it’s OK to have a drink a day for women or two for men.” Here are five ways to enjoy all those virtual happy hours — without overdoing it.

1. Set limits on how much you’re drinking

The serving size for a glass of wine is 5 ounces, says Cassetty. But if you’re using a large wine glass, you could be pouring much more than that. “So even if you’re sticking with one glass,” she says, “you might be having nearly two drinks.”

2. Limit sugary cocktails

“We’ve seen that people with underlying conditions, like heart disease and diabetes, are at greater risk for serious illness from COVID-19,” says Cassetty. “Excess added sugar in the diet has been linked with these conditions, along with other things, like inadequate sleep, which also impacts your immune functioning.” Keep it simple and opt for a “quarantini” or spritz over cocktails made with sugary mixers or simple syrups.

3. Consider low- or no-alcohol drinks

Swap lower ABV wines (12% or 13% max), spritzes and spirit-free cocktails into your drinks rotation. If you’re having trouble maintaining alcohol limits, says Cassetty, it may help to avoid activities that involve drinking (including mocktails, which mimic drinking), and focus on self-care strategies, like meditation or a hobby, instead.

4. Be careful about relaxing your own rules

“Increased use tends to begin with relaxing the typical ‘rules’ around alcohol,” says McClary. “The challenge is to be mindful of what the usual rules would’ve been, and to try to stick with them.” If you typically have a glass of wine with dinner, it makes sense to stick with that — don’t go for a second glass. Similarly, she says, “if you never would’ve previously considered drinking before 5 p.m., don't start now.”

5. Adjust your focus

Even if the cocktail you made is a masterpiece, the real focus of the evening, says McClary, should be on the people who are there with you and the personal connections you’re making. There are many downsides to the way the pandemic is affecting our lives. One upside, she says, is more time to reconnect with family and friends, whether remotely or in person. “We’ll all benefit from connecting with others.”

As we continue to self-quarantine, ongoing individual, partnership and parental issues will become more challenging for many, says McClary. If you’re struggling to cope, reach out to a licensed therapist. Many are conducting remote sessions over the phone or through secure video chats. Check with your insurance company to see what the current guidelines are for your policy. Therapy can be a valuable tool for managing your concerns about the coronavirus, but just as importantly, says Cassetty, “it’ll help you down the line, too.”

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