How to stop day drinking and change bad pandemic habits related to alcohol use and abuse

Alcohol use spiked during the pandemic. If you have been drinking too much during the day — or anytime — we've got four simple strategies to help you ditch unhealthy drinking.
June 30, 2021
Day-drinking became much more common during the pandemic. Now people want to stop. Here, a man who looks hung over holds his head in his hand.
Many people want to know how to stop day drinking after it became much more common during the pandemic. Photo: Getty Images.

Along with perma-sweatpants, too much sourdough bread and endless binges on Netflix, day drinking became a thing during the pandemic.

And now, many people are asking how to stop day drinking.

But it can be tough to ditch day drinking and other bad habits related to alcohol that many people picked up during the pandemic. That’s because everyone lost their routines overnight when the pandemic forced lockdowns in the spring of 2020. We had to create new routines out of nothing. And some of the bad habits are sticking.

While some people adopted healthier routines like exercising more and spending quality time with family members, many others felt exhausted, lonely, overworked and depressed.

And some turned to day drinking, once common only for Sunday brunches or vacations at the beach.

Working at home for months on end meant easy access to the wine fridge or the liquor cabinet. Happy hours slid earlier and earlier.  Amid loneliness and uncertainty, beer, wine and liquor seemed like good company for some people at all hours of the day.

Vanessa Rollins is a psychologist who cares for patients at UCHeath Family Medicine in Boulder. She has a doctorate in psychology and together with behavioral health colleagues and primary care providers, Rollins provides mental health and counseling services to patients of all ages, from children to older adults.

Many of Rollins’ patients have reported that they have been day drinking or consuming too much alcohol at all hours throughout the pandemic.

“The rationale we hear is ‘I could drink because I was home. I never in a million years would have thought about having a drink during a workday. But, now I’m home, it’s 3 p.m. and I’m stressed and bored. I’m just working on the computer anyway,’” said Rollins, who is also an assistant professor of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Soon, a rare drink became a new habit: regular day drinking.

Day drinking became a coping mechanism, Rollins said.

“Increased alcohol consumption is just one of the many unhealthy behaviors that people might have picked up during the pandemic,” Rollins said. “It has been something to do to pass the time, to feel less bored, tired, lonely or sad.”

Head shot of Vanessa Rollins. She's a psychologist and has been helping patients to stop day-drinking.
Vanessa Rollins is a psychologist who helps people with a variety of mental and behavioral health challenges. Many patients have reported that they’ve been “day drinking” and many want help stopping now. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

It’s too early to know all of the impacts that the pandemic has had on alcohol use in the U.S. The newest comprehensive statistics on alcohol use and abuse in the U.S. date from 2019.

But, early studies like this one in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health have confirmed what Rollins has experienced in her clinic: Alcohol use has spiked during the pandemic. The researchers found that nearly two-thirds of study participants reported that their drinking had increased after the pandemic began. Nearly half cited stress. Others blamed easy access to alcohol and boredom. Among the comments: “It gives me the feeling of going out;” “I feel safer because I’m at home;” “It’s a tasty distraction;” and “It feels permissible.”

The health costs of alcohol use and abuse can be very high. According to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA):

  • The rate of alcohol-related visits to ERs has been on the rise for several years and alcohol contributes to nearly 20% of ER visits.
  • An estimated 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year — approximately 68,000 men and 27,000 women — making alcohol the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. The first is tobacco and the second is poor diet and physical inactivity.
  • Binge drinking is an epidemic among young people, with nearly one-third of adults ages 18 to 22 reporting at least one episode of binge drinking in the previous month.
  • Alcohol use and abuse among women has been rising dramatically and some young women report that they are drinking as much as men “to cope,” not just for pleasure.
  • And, use of alcohol among pregnant women is on the rise, with about 10% of pregnant women reporting alcohol consumption during the previous month.
  • Overall, research shows that people who misuse alcohol have a greater risk of liver disease, heart disease, depression, stroke, stomach bleeding and some types of cancer. Alcohol use and abuse can also worsen diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep disorders while increasing unsafe sexual behavior.

If you feel that you’ve been enjoying one too many cocktails, beers or glasses of wine during the day — or anytime for that matter — Rollins has suggestions for how you can stop.

How to stop day drinking?

1. Honestly assess your current drinking habit.

Rollins asks her patients to consider whether their drinking is truly moderate or is interfering with their lives.

“There’s this category called risky drinking, where maybe you’re not in the realm of addiction but you are at risk for a variety of issues, like getting in trouble at work, health problems, DUIs, and not being an available member of the family,” Rollins said.

Before you can break a bad habit, you need to assess your current alcohol consumption.

“Ask yourself, ‘What amount of alcohol on a daily or weekly basis would you consider safe or reasonable for you?’ or ‘When you felt OK about your alcohol use, how much were you drinking then?’ and compare that against health guidelines for a reality check.”

2. Once you have gotten honest with yourself, a family member or a behavioral health specialist about your levels of day drinking or other alcohol consumption, compare your alcohol use to the NIAAA guidelines.

Low-risk drinking for women means consuming no more than three drinks on any single day and no more than seven drinks per week. For men — since their body mass is generally larger — low-risk drinking means consuming no more than four drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week.

It’s important to note that NIAAA definitions of “one drink” may be different than yours. What counts as one drink? Let’s just say a big pour of wine doesn’t count. The guidelines state that one drink is equivalent to one 12-ounce beer, 1 9-ounce serving of malt liquor, a 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounce of distilled spirits.

Some people who consume alcohol at relatively low levels can still have problems, but NIAAA research shows that only about two of every 100 people who drink within the recommended limits cope with alcohol use disorder. Some people have medical conditions that alcohol in any amount can worsen. Also, people who consume alcohol too quickly — especially without eating — can quickly lose control and may be in danger of risky behavior like impaired driving or dangerous sexual behavior.

When Rollins discusses the recommended alcohol use guidelines with patients, she finds many are surprised and really want to see if they can get their consumption within the guidelines.

“Some say, ‘Wow, I had no idea I was drinking that much, I’m going to see if I can have just one or two.’”

3. Experiment by changing your behavior and keeping a record of how you feel.

Rollins encourages patients who are not dealing with extreme problems — like family conflicts or struggles at work — to experiment with reductions in alcohol use.

“See if you can stick with the guidelines, and then come back and we’ll talk about what it’s been like and where we’ll go from there,” she said.

Some people use calendars, journals or an app on their phone to both monitor use and log their behaviors and emotions while drinking. Writing down how you felt — both physically and emotionally — and what you were doing before you had that drink can lead to great revelations.

“Patterns can quickly become evident. We might see that the drinking happens when lonely or bored, or to manage some other type of emotional trigger,” Rollins said, “That opens the door then to find new ways to manage those difficult emotions or situations other than drinking such as mindfulness, exercise, or calling a friend.”

Mindfully keeping track of consumption in this way also allows people to take a look at the relationship between how much they’re drinking and their goals. Many people find it easier to cut back on alcohol when they see it as part of a bigger picture, Rollins said.

“Compare your alcohol use to your goals around work and family, weight and energy. Do you need to get consumption down further to achieve your goals?”

For instance, someone with diabetes might want to cut back on alcohol consumption to meet their blood sugar goals.

Others who are trying to lose pandemic pounds might want to reduce or eliminate alcohol from their diet since it’s so full of calories. Day drinking or consuming too much alcohol any time of day can make it difficult to lose weight or stay at a healthy weight.

“If your goal is to take off five pounds, reducing or eliminating alcohol can be a great help with weight loss,” Rollins said.

Poor sleep also can be closely linked to drinking too much alcohol. While a drink or two makes many people feel drowsy, consuming alcohol too close to bedtime will cause more wakefulness during the night. (For more tips on sleeping better, read: Need help sleeping better? Good news. Simple tips can help you improve your sleep.)

“For some people, one drink is too much,” Green said.

For patients who don’t have serious addiction issues and want help simply cutting back on alcohol consumption, Rollins often recommends a popular workbook: “The 30-Day No Alcohol Challenge: Your Simple Guide to Easily Reduce or Quit Alcohol” by James Swanwick.

4. If day drinking or other alcohol use is causing problems in your life, develop a plan to change your behavior.

“Being in that area of risky drinking doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an alcoholic or that you have an alcohol use disorder,” Rollins said, “But, if you’re finding that all of your efforts to get your consumption within the guidelines aren’t working, that’s it’s just too hard, or that your relationship to alcohol is impacting other areas of your life, then it’s time to get some help.”

Talk with your primary care provider, a behavioral health specialist, or reach out for help to a program like UCHealth’s Center for Dependency, Addiction and Recovery (CeDAR).

How do you know if day drinking or having one too many drinks has morphed into alcohol use disorder?

Medical and behavioral health experts use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the DSM-5 (the newest version) to make a formal diagnosis.

“The main criteria is an inability to stop or control alcohol use despite experiencing adverse social, work, or health consequences,” Rollins said, “That doesn’t mean you have to be blackout drunk all the time; it means things like giving up on going to your kids’ soccer games, hiding your drinking from your spouse, isolating from others in order to drink, missing deadlines at work, or continuing to drink even though you have health problems.”

To assess whether occasional day drinking or enjoying an early happy hour has morphed into mild, moderate or severe alcohol use disorder, answer the following questions from the DSM-5.

In the past year, have you:

  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the after-effects?
  • Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
  • Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?

If you have any of these symptoms, your drinking may already be a cause for concern. The more symptoms you have, the more urgently you may need help.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.

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