Back in mid-March, as schools and businesses began to close and people headed home to hunker down, Amanda, a 44-year-old yoga instructor in Portland, Maine (who asked that her real name not be used for privacy reasons), decided to address one of the many worries that had begun to consume her day. “And that was whether I was drinking too much,” she says. Already, friends who suddenly had more time on their hands were ending their work days at 4 p.m. with a glass of wine or breaking out the “good tequila” on a Tuesday just to have “something to look forward to.”
Several studies conducted last fall determined that binge drinking has increased during the pandemic. A study of more than 1,500 adults published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September found that the frequency of alcohol consumption increased 14% over the previous year for all adults. For women, binge drinking went up a whopping 41%.
Amanda wasn’t a problem drinker, but she worried that she could easily become one during the pandemic. “Removing the option entirely felt far easier than expecting myself to moderate, given all that was going on,” she says. She’s part of a growing number of people inspired by the pandemic to adopt a sort of preemptive sobriety. In July, a survey of 2,000 people commissioned by the addiction-awareness group Alcohol Change UK found that 7% of participants had stopped drinking completely during the lockdown.
‘People are recognizing they don’t want to poison their power supply while the state of the world is what it is.’
The alcohol-alternative beverage market, meanwhile, has exploded and is now expected to exceed $29 billion by 2026. Jen Batchelor, the cofounder of Kin Euphorics, a line of non-alcoholic drinks, says that sales of their most popular canned cocktail, Kin Spritz, have quadrupled during the pandemic. “People are recognizing they don’t want to poison their power supply while the state of the world is what it is,” says Ms. Batchelor. “They want to maintain their agency at a time that’s already mood roulette. But the mentality is not, ‘I kicked alcohol.’ It’s ‘I shifted away from alcohol.’ It’s a choice, rather than what we often think of as a necessity, someone’s need to stop drinking—or else.”
“I think a lot of people are coming at sobriety from a fresh, modern, data-driven lens these days, where it’s so easy to measure the inputs in your life and what variables make you feel a different way—what affects your sleep, your hydration, your mindfulness,” says Bill Shufelt, co-founder and CEO of Athletic Brewing Company, a nonalcoholic craft brewery whose 2020 sales were up more than 500% over the year before. “And I think isolation and being in their houses has especially helped people identify the variables that are making them feel better or worse.”
People who give up alcohol often report doing so not to address a drinking problem but to avoid creating one. “At this time when people are feeling more anxious, it’s become very common among the patients I’m seeing to give up alcohol preemptively,” says Chicago psychotherapist Kelley Kitley. “People are telling me, I don’t identify as an alcoholic, I’m not blacking out. But with everything so heightened, I recognize that I could be tempted to use alcohol as a coping mechanism.”
Chris Cucchiara, a 32-year-old Realtor in Pismo Beach, Calif., hasn’t had a drink since January of last year. “I thought I would start once the pandemic started, but I kept going” with sobriety, he says. “I have used alcohol to quell anxiety in the past. It became a goal to test myself during the pandemic, sort of a project.” Will sobriety stick once the pandemic is over? Mr. Cucchiara says he’s not sure, but he’s happier now than he’s been in a while.
“It’s interesting how a pandemic can fuel healthy choices as much as unhealthy ones,” says Manhattan psychologist Sarah Gundle. “People are definitely struggling to find ways to cope, as some of their other tried and true methods, like the gym and friends, are being taken away. But making a conscious decision to do something differently during this time—as an experiment or a short-term goal or something more permanent—can provide a nice structure and focus that can be very soothing and useful.”
From her more introverted newly sober patients, Dr. Gundle has heard reports of relief that they can now socialize without the need to drink. “They’re at home and more comfortable, and no one has to know they’re sipping a seltzer and not a gin and tonic,” she says.
Even some who never considered sobriety—and may never again, once life returns to “normal”—have made the shift for the duration of the pandemic. Brian O’Ceileachair, a 39-year-old content director and Irish expat living in Orlando, Fla., says the pandemic ended his 20-plus-year streak of drinking several days a week. A friend had posted on
about hitting one year sober, and Mr. O’Ceileachair was inspired “to take some time off.”
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It didn’t take long for him to see a shift in his stress levels and overall mood. “Work got easier to deal with, the kids got less annoying, mornings got significantly easier,” he says. “I’m currently on the longest sober streak of my life, and honestly I regret not figuring this out years ago. Everyone knows me as a grumpy curmudgeon, but since I quit drinking, I’m not that guy anymore.”
Ruby Warrington, author of the 2019 book “Sober Curious,” says she saw her Sober Curious Facebook group triple during the pandemic. “I saw far more people who might have considered themselves normal social drinkers suddenly realize they desired to numb out and knew that wasn’t great,” she says. “I also saw lots of people who might have used alcohol as social lubricant questioning their habits because it wasn’t something they needed in order to socialize anymore.”
In the U.K., she says, the number of people abstaining from alcohol for Dry January jumped from 3.9 million in 2020 to 6.5 million this year. An estimated 15% of Americans participated in Dry January in 2021 versus 10% last year. Ms. Warrington believes the shift has much to do with the fact that it can be far easier to abstain from alcohol completely than to try to moderate. “We expend an awful amount of brain power drinking, and as soon as we’ve had one, our responses are already altered,” she says.
Ms. Marshall read Holly Whitaker’s 2019 book ‘Quit Like a Woman,’ which notes that while using alcohol as a coping mechanism might feel like it’s helping, ultimately it’s hurting.
Before Covid-19, Lillie Marshall, a 39-year-old teacher, writer and mother of two in Boston, was a “classic mother drinker,” she says. “I’d teach all day, come home exhausted, reward myself with a drink, maybe two.” Once lockdown started and she found herself teaching from home, as well as taking care of her two young kids, she realized that she “could not survive this thing” unless she was in top shape. She had never considered her once-a-day drink an issue but felt sure it wasn’t helping.
Her best friend had come to the same realization. She advised Ms. Marshall to read Holly Whitaker’s 2019 book “Quit Like a Woman,” which notes that while using alcohol as a coping mechanism might feel like it’s helping, ultimately it’s hurting. Ms. Marshall and her friend cut out the booze and began doing daily meditations.
It wasn’t long before she noticed she was sleeping better, had more energy and was far less irritable. Her productivity was through the roof—no time lost to drinking or to even the slightest of hangovers. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, from that one drink?’” she says. The friends had set a goal of not drinking for 21 days, but nearly 10 months later, neither has looked back. “On top of all of that, my husband isn’t working this year for pandemic-related reasons, and we are saving a ton of money,” says Ms. Marshall. “Oh, and I have abs again!”
—Dr. Drexler is a New York City-based research psychologist and filmmaker and the author of two books about gender and families.
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