By Kim Barrett
The last several months have been stressful for almost everyone and, unfortunately, many people are turning to alcohol to help them cope, with a fifth of UK adults drinking more often during the lockdown. Drinking to get through anxious situations is something I’m very familiar with but over the last few years, I’ve learnt how unhelpful that can be.
Throughout my school and university exams, alcohol was a constant companion and I continued drinking heavily during the first few years of my first job. I relied on it to help me make friends, relax and have a good time, as well as quietening the loud rattle of the anxious thoughts in my brain.
I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life but four years ago, I finally went to the doctor for help with my mental health. The anti-depressants she gave me were not supposed to be taken with alcohol. Although I worried about chatting with friends and meeting new people without the social lubricant I had been relying on, I stopped drinking.
Despite my initial concern, I enjoyed socialising while sober and liked being able to remember everything that happened during a night out. However, I usually left earlier than I used to, particularly if those around me were looking (and acting) a little worse for wear.
When I first stopped drinking, I wasn’t sure what to order instead of beer, which had been my usual drink. Thankfully, non-alcoholic versions of many drinks, including beer, wine and spirits, are now commonly available. Swapping to non-alcoholic beer made me feel more normal than drinking soft drinks. These non-alcoholic equivalents were also useful for avoiding questions about why I wasn’t drinking, as they can easily be mistaken as alcoholic.
Several months later, I stopped taking anti-depressants and started to drink again. I realised that every time that I did, I felt terrible for three days afterwards. It wasn’t just a hangover: my anxiety went into overdrive and I felt suicidal.
This is well-documented but not a well-known side-effect of alcohol: reducing anxiety in the short term but worsening it in the days afterwards. With such a clear link between alcohol and my anxiety, I decided that drinking alcohol wasn’t worth feeling that way and stopped.
Cutting out alcohol wasn’t a complete cure, as there’s no silver bullet for mental health problems. However, stopping drinking has eliminated the intense spikes of anxiety that I felt after a night out. It’s also helped me to keep a more regular sleep pattern, which is one of the many lifestyle changes I’ve found to be helpful.
I don’t mind being around other people who are drinking and there is still alcohol in my house as my partner drinks. A small amount of alcohol doesn’t affect my anxiety so I allow myself one small glass of something alcoholic on special occasions. (When there isn’t a pandemic going on, I’m partial to half a pint of the plum porter served at my local pub).
However, I’ve been extra careful about doing this since lockdown began.
Coronavirus has caused the world to feel anxious, fearful and grief-stricken. People are worried about catching the disease and missing those it has taken from us. As well as the direct effects, the pandemic has impacted income, shredded support networks and forced families into close quarters. Many are finding it difficult to navigate the world when everything comes with a risk factor, to ourselves and others, that is almost impossible to calculate.
At times I’ve been tempted to smooth over the situation with a drink but alcohol only gives temporary relief. The wave of feelings that return are worse than the ones I started with. Instead, I’ve relied heavily on the techniques I learnt in therapy to accept things I can’t change and challenge unhelpful thoughts.
Alcohol is one tool that can be used to manage some symptoms of anxiety but I’ve found it’s better to use more reliable ones.