It's been a long time since our last blog post! We apologize for our silence. Many people are struggling with pandemic-related stress and changes, and others are simply coming out of the woodwork after quarantine to get mental health care and evaluations that they have put off. Elaine Rodriguez is the newest member of our clinical team, and we are incredibly fortunate to have her. Please view her bio at: https://www.etheridgepsychology.com/elaine-rodriguez
We've all heard that substance abuse has been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The pandemic is certainly associated with the increase, but different factors play into it for different people. For example, some people's substance use is associated with the pandemic through the stress of job loss, financial difficulties, disruption to their lives, and/or losing a loved one to COVID-19. For others, an increase in substance use is associated with pandemic-related depression, and still others are using more due to plain boredom.
If you have found yourself wondering about your own or a loved one's drinking habits, you may feel unsure about whether the drinking behavior "qualifies" as alcohol abuse. Most of the time, you should trust your feelings, but if you want more to go on, Elaine offers some guidance.
Three common warning signs indicating you or a loved one may have an issue with alcohol abuse:
#1. Alcohol tolerance
Over time, consuming alcohol can result in an increased tolerance to its effects. This is the body and brain’s way of adapting in an attempt to keep us safe, despite intoxication. You might notice that your loved one can have drink after drink without experiencing the typical side effects (slurred speech, impaired coordination), or that you now need six beers instead of two to achieve a “buzz.”
#2. Loss of control/prioritizing drinking
A hallmark of any addiction is continuing to drink or use despite it causing a negative impact on one’s life. This can range from behaviors like choosing to drink over other activities, or making multiple attempts to cut-back without success, and drinking even when facing legal consequences such as a DUI. You may notice that someone you care about is only interested in events that include alcohol, or drinks in settings that are inappropriate.
#3. Withdrawal and cravings
When we become dependent on alcohol, suddenly refraining from drinking can cause the body to go into withdrawal. Without the substance the body has become accustomed to, our system goes into a state of shock, resulting in physical and emotional symptoms. This includes intense desire or craving to drink. Have you ever felt anxious, or felt your hands tremble when you couldn’t (or chose not to) drink? Does someone you love seem to be hyper-focused on when they can have their next drink?
Alcohol is a unique drug, in that the withdrawal symptoms can be severe or even fatal. People going through alcohol withdrawal can experience seizures, hallucinations, agitation, and disorientation. Therefore, it’s important to seek medical supervision when attempting to quit.
In addition to seeking medical support, the strategies below may also prove helpful for those deciding to give up alcohol.
Build a support network: Sobriety is a journey best handled through recruiting as much support as possible. This includes friends and family, but one can consider external networks as well. Most people are familiar with 12 Step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), however, this is far from the only option available. Other group support options include online forums and chat rooms, some of which also offer in-person meetings. You can also choose to seek guidance from your general practitioner, workplace Employee Assistance Program (EAP), a professional therapist, or a religious/spiritual community.
Change routines and avoid triggers: We discussed the ways in which drinking can alter the brain and body, however, alcohol use also has behavioral components. Over time, the act of drinking becomes associated with certain people, places, and activities. Cravings can be triggered by subtle cues such as the time of day, weather, or stress. When you or a loved one are new to sobriety, it is crucial to understand triggers and avoid them when possible. This can include taking a new route to avoid passing the liquor store, and making an effort to engage in activities that don’t include alcohol.
Seek to understand, prevent, and cope with relapse: Relapse is considered a normal and common component of addiction. It is estimated that up to 90% of recovering alcoholics will have at least one slip during the first four years of their recovery. Recognizing your own or a loved one’s warning signs can help prevent relapse. These include increased stress/anxiety, rationalizing and complacency (e.g. thinking it is okay to have one drink, because it is a special occasion), and decreased engagement with one’s support network. Perhaps most importantly, individuals in early recovery and those who care about them should be understanding when a slip occurs, and recognize that this does not indicate failure. Continue being gentle with your loved one or yourself, and revisit what encouraged success prior to the relapse.