Ever poured a glass of wine and thought ‘I deserve this’ after a long, stressful day? Actually, we think you deserve better.
Research has shown the link between stress and drinking – when an individual is under more stress, they are more likely to drink increased volumes of alcohol, especially if they do not have other effective coping mechanisms to rely on. We see it in movies, where the protagonist drowns their sorrows in a dark bar, and in our language when we say things like ‘What a day—I need a drink!
In fact, a 2018 study revealed that over half of adults (aged 18–75) in the UK drink to cope with stress. And let’s not beat around the bush—there have been a few pretty stressful events since this study was published. According to a more recent study in the US, alcohol consumption has gone up in every age group. The biggest increase is women having more than four drinks within two hours, rising by 41%. No points for guessing the cause. Cue exhibit A: higher stress and uncertainty triggered by a global pandemic. But what this shows is that it’s very easy for us to make a bee-line for the wine bottle when times are hard.
How does stress work?
So how do you manage stress if not with a stiff drink? Well, it can help to understand what you’re experiencing when you feel stressed.
Stress is your body’s reaction to the feeling of pressure or an imminent threat. It’s an evolutionary response to danger, sending a rush of adrenaline and other hormones like cortisol through your body so you’re ready to act. In other words, it’s your fight or flight response. These days we may not have sabre-toothed tigers to avoid, but we can still get overwhelmed. Never-ending to-do lists, tough decisions, and busy schedules are all common pressures.
Why we all need coping strategies that work
If you want to protect your mental health and wellbeing in general, you need to know how to cope with stress. While alcohol can give you temporary relief as a sedative, it doesn’t help you get to the root of the problem. Instead, you’re putting off your problems until you sober up (and adding a banging headache to the list as well).
A 2016 study suggested that the effectiveness of a strategy comes down to the sense of control it gives us. For example, confronting problems head-on and thinking positively created stronger feelings of control. And in turn, better mental wellbeing. More passive strategies like avoidance and denial had the opposite effect.
So how does this apply to alcohol as a coping mechanism? Well, booze certainly doesn’t make us feel more in control. It’s an avoidance technique that numbs feelings, and as such is likely to have a negative psychological impact. And that’s before we even get to the body chemistry effects like higher anxiety, poor sleep, and fatigue.
Dealing with stress without the alcohol
There are two options here: tackle the problem, or tackle the symptoms. Here’s what we mean by that.
If the source of the stress is in your control, look for ways to reduce or remove it. That will bring down your stress levels and bingo, problem solved. But of course it isn’t always as simple as that. There are plenty of stressful things in life that we can’t change—the pandemic is a prime example. So if you have no power over the stressor, you need techniques that help you regain a sense of control, or some relaxation time away from the situation.
What works for one person may not work for you, and what works in one context may not work in another. That’s why it’s a great idea to build a toolkit of healthy go-to strategies that don’t involve alcohol. What’s more, exploring these alternatives will help develop problem-solving skills and resilience. (And boost your confidence for handling stress in the future.)
Ideas to try instead
Deal with the problem
- Break down your day into sections, or break up tasks into manageable chunks. Focus on one section or step at a time to avoid to-do list overwhelm.
- Ask others to lighten your load.
- Put some distance between yourself and the issue.
Deal with the symptoms
- Exercise to relieve nervous energy build-up or adrenaline.
- Try meditation, yoga, or a relaxing bath to calm your heart rate.
- Write your feelings down to help vent negative emotions.
It’s impossible to completely avoid stress, but you can get better at handling it. As with most things in life, practise makes perfect…
Pollard MS, Tucker JS, Green HD. Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(9):e2022942. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.22942
Dijkstra Maria T. M., Homan Astrid C. Engaging in Rather than Disengaging from Stress: Effective Coping and Perceived Control. Frontiers in Psychology. 2016.
Penelope Hasking, Michael Lyvers, Cassandra Carlopio. The relationship between coping strategies, alcohol expectancies, drinking motives and drinking behaviour. Addictive Behaviors, Volume 36, Issue 5. 2011.
An entrepreneur and former senior oil broker, Ruari gave up drinking after excessive consumption almost cost him his marriage, and worse, his life. Going alcohol-free improved his relationships, career and energy levels, leading to him founding OYNB to provide a support network for others.