Why you're drinking more during lockdown
Updated: May 27
This post originally appeared on my Medium on April 30, 2020.
“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Alcohol consumption is the 7th leading death risk factor across the globe[i], yet remains one of the most socially accepted health vices. If you’re anything like me, many of you have probably started drinking more than you used to during lockdown. The jokes and memes around drinking during COVID-19 are pretty damn funny, I must admit, despite the severity of the potential future health impacts. Things like:
“I’ve swapped margaritas for my morning coffee — that’s fine, right?”
“Your alcoholic lockdown name is your first name + your last name.”
Ever wondered why you’re drinking more? Easy answers come to mind: Stress, boredom, because it’s there, don’t have to drive anywhere, etc. But let’s look a bit deeper at the issue, shall we?
Conveniently, my health summative for my behavioural science MSc that I completed last year was titled: “How affective states impact time preferences for increased alcohol consumption.” Otherwise known as… “Why you’re drinking more during lockdown.”
You’re feeling some STRONG emotions right now, which can make us not give AF.
Emotions and their impact on alcohol use are well studied. When not in an affectively-hot state (so, you know, when you’re not riled up), it’s easy to underestimate how powerful visceral emotions can be and their impact on future behavior; these emotions are so strong that they essentially crowd out any other goals or motivating factors we may have — like not drinking to give your liver a break.[ii]
Visceral states include anger, lust, hunger, fatigue, and are characterized by hedonic desires. Any impulsive actions you’re inspired to do because you’re in a visceral state you’re suddenly going to view more favorably.[iii] This basically describes why you want to rip off someone’s clothes after a few drinks and it seems like a great idea at the time. Therefore, if you find yourself experiencing a strong emotional driver in the present (…anyone…anyone), you may have less guilt toward pouring that extra glass.
Stress breaks our willpower.
You know when you’ve had a really long day at work and by the time the evening comes, you just…can’t? Some theorize that stress can be ego-depleting, making it harder to resist external environmental cues prompting one to drink, at both a conscious and unconscious level.
We feel negative emotions more strongly than positive ones
Negative emotions (such as anxiety) can influence not only the decision to drink in those who use it as a coping mechanism, but also the quantity consumed and how good it feels.[iv] Feelings of hopelessness and depression, which I think a lot of us are feeling right now, can lead one to drink in an attempt to battle these strong negative feelings.[v]
We can’t see beyond the end of the glass
There is literally a thing called alcohol myopia theory[vi] that posits that alcohol and the good feelings that stem from drinking create an emphasis on the present and limits attention to only focus on and enjoy the immediate experience. That’s why time flies when you’re having fun (or drags on when you’re crying into your wine glass).
We think everyone else is doing it
Normative expectations explain how individuals in a group conform to what they think is normal behavior — and this is especially true regarding how much we drink[vii]. The social acceptability of a drinking culture contributes to increased consumption and varies in different contexts. I think the context of COVID-19 and lockdown has suddenly made it a whole lot more acceptable. And, back to the memes previously referenced — when we see them on the internet constantly, it changes our view of what normal drinking actually is. After all, the drinking habits of our friends, and the friends of friends that we are connected to through social networks, have influential effects on consumption, as well.[viii] It’s quite possible we are overestimating how much our friends drink,[ix] which could lead to increased consumption in a desire to “fit in.”
Some of you are worse at impulse control than others (sorry)
The connection between impulsivity and alcohol use is well-evidenced,[x] and concludes that impulsivity is a key consumption driver. And, acting on impulse while in a bad mood is significantly associated with alcohol consumption.[xi] So if you tend to be impulsive AND find yourself in a bad mood a lot, well…that doesn’t exactly set you up for success.
As with most things in life, moderation is the key to health and happiness. It is acceptable and agreeable to have a drink with friends to celebrate, but systemic alcohol abuse or harmful consumption levels should be moderated. By understanding why we drink, we can hopefully start to take steps to drink less.
Side note: I’m not a neuroscientist, so addiction contributors such as neuroadaptive changes aren’t in my purview to confidently and credibly write about, which is why they are not covered here.
[i] Griswold, M. et al. (2018). Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Retrieved online June 29, 2019 from: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31310-2/fulltext
[ii] Loewenstein, G. (1996). Out of control: Visceral influences on behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 65, 272–292.
[iii] Nordgren, L., Pligt, J., Harreveld, F., & Dovidio, John F. (2007). Evaluating Eve: Visceral States Influence the Evaluation of Impulsive Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(1), 75–84.
[iv] Rousseau, Irons, & Correia. (2011). The reinforcing value of alcohol in a drinking to cope paradigm. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 118(1), 1–4
[v] Castellanos-Ryan, N., & Conrod, P. (2012). Personality and substance misuse: Evidence for
a four-factor model of vulnerability. In J. C. Verster., K. Brady, M. Galanter, & P. Conrod
(Eds.), Springer New York: Drug Abuse and Addiction in Medical Illness.
[vi] Steele, C., & Josephs, R. (1990). Alcohol myopia: Its prized and dangerous effects. American Psychologist, 45(8), 921–933.
[vii] Clapp, J., & McDonnell, A. (2000). The relationship of perceptions of alcohol promotion and peer drinking norms to alcohol problems reported by college students. Journal of College Student Development, 41, 19–26.
[viii] Skog, O. (1985). The Collectivity of Drinking Cultures: A Theory of the Distribution of Alcohol Consumption.*. British Journal of Addiction, 80(1), 83–99.
[ix] Lewis, M., & Neighbors, C. (2004). Gender-specific misperceptions of college student drinking norms. Psychology Of Addictive Behaviors, 18, 334–339.
[x] de Wit H (2009) Impulsivity as a determinant and consequence of drug use: a review of underlying processes. Addict Biol, 14, 22–31
[xi] Murphy, C. M., & MacKillop, J. (2012). Living in the here and now: Interrelationships between impulsivity, mindfulness, and alcohol misuse. Psychopharmacology (Berl.),219, 527–536.