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Could drinking more during coronavirus lockdown turn into addiction?

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It’s fair to say that we’re all a little high strung these days. There’s a lot of internet fodder about new ways to take the edge off — online Uno, anyone? — but the truth is that most folks are just using old-fashioned coping mechanisms like booze and weed. Combining boredom and anxiety creates a cocktail that almost inevitably leads to overindulgence. But how bad is it for us sedate ourselves in this way during lockdown? We talked to a few people in coronavirus-afflicted cities about their current imbibing patterns and asked an addiction specialist if we’re all going to emerge from this pandemic with substance abuse issues.

“I usually only day-drink when I'm actually at brunch,” Gabrielle Pharms, a 33-year-old in Austin tells Mic. Pharms is experiencing a bit more stress than usual right now, though. She just got laid off and is married to a nurse, which both warrant pretty constant worrying. “It's ‘brunch rules’ at this point, so I’ve become a day drinker.” Pharms still doesn't drink every day, so she isn’t worried about a dependency. “Alcohol is not a coping mechanism. I rely on my faith and anti-depressants for that,” she says.

Should we be worried that our current pattern of excessive drinking may lead to addiction problems in the future, or is this just a pandemic-era relaxation technique we’re all temporarily employing?

Other folks I spoke are a little more concerned about their drinking getting out of hand. “I am now having a gin and tonic at around 7 pm, and I would never have normally done that on a Tuesday night,” Jenny Stallard, who lives in London, tells Mic. She’s drinking more routinely, but not heavily. “I don't feel concerned, but I have noticed a change,” Stallard says. “I wonder how this will work long term — if I will continue with the pattern I've slipped into, or if it will plateau.”

That’s exactly what a lot of us are wondering right now. Should we be worried that our current pattern of excessive drinking may lead to addiction problems in the future, or is this just a pandemic-era relaxation technique we’re all temporarily employing?

“Increased drinking may be a coping mechanism some turn to at this time. But if so, it is important to have other, healthier ones as well,” Tim Powell, a Dallas-based therapist and addiction specialist tells Mic. “Substances as the main or only coping skill is not the answer.” Basically, if drinking is the only way you wind down, though, you might have a problem — or develop one down the road.

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“I don’t want to find out a few months from now that I’ve replaced all my coping mechanisms with alcohol,” Alaina Lavoi, a 27-year-old from the Boston area tells me. Lavoi’s family has a history of drinking problems, she says, so she feels like she has to be extra careful to not to sink into a dependency issue. “Current research suggests that addiction is a disease, so those with the genetic markers are at high risk,” Powell says. “For others it can just be an unhealthy coping skill.”

For individuals like Lavoi, keeping tabs on drinking could prevent her from developing habits now that turn into addictions later. Lavi practices intentional drinking, so she’s used to asking herself questions like, “Am I drinking to avoid my feelings?” before she pours herself a glass. She has gotten more permissive with herself during self-isolation, but she tells me that she's still being mindful. “I have had to give myself somewhat of a pass,” Lavoi says. “My habits are not going to be what they used to be. My normal habits and healing mechanisms have been cut off.” It's understandable — being on lockdown because of a global health crisis is pretty unprecedented; everything from yoga class and in-person therapy to a comforting hook-up is not exactly options right now.

“I’m stressed out and bored and I’ve already watched so much TV,” says Alex Zaragoza, a 35-year-old Brooklyn resident. "I’m drinking so much more than I usually do. I mean, I like kombucha, but it really doesn’t hit as good.” Zaragoza approaches the topic with levity, but does seem genuinely concerned about her drinking.

Because she’s had liver health issues in the past, Zaragoza is usually really strict with herself when it comes to alcohol consumption, but the stress of the COVID-19 crisis has loosened her boundaries, understandably. “At the beginning of stay-at-home, I was going a little too hard,” Zaragoza tells me. While it assuaged her nerves, she wasn't comfortable on the buzz she was relying on — so she established some pandemic-era drinking rules to stay balanced: No hard liquor, and no more than two drinks per day.

The cannabis users I spoke with seem a little less concerned about indulging on the daily. “Cannabis does wonders in keeping me and my partner sane, uplifted, and rested,” says Evan Malachosky, a 25-year-old in New York City. His partner was recently laid off and they are currently in their 20-somethingth day of isolation in a small apartment.

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Malachowsky believes that weed is helping make their situation a little less anxiety-inducing. “It's great for any creative projects you're tackling in the absence of outdoor and group activities, and it’s particularly useful for getting to sleep in spite of looming uncertainty,” he tells me.

Regardless, getting lifted has been a more frequent pastime for many during these dark times. “Before our state shut down, I remember feeling so anxious I started shaking and got dizzy and thought I was going to vomit,” Jeff McLaughlin, a writer in Michigan says, describing the beginnings of a panic attack. “Then I smoked after I calmed down and felt like I was able to drift somewhere back to ‘normal.”

Although he has gone from being an end-of-the-evening smoker to a daytime toker, McLaughlin doesn't seem worried about getting hooked in a dangerous way. He tells me that might be concerned if he were drinking too much, but that smoking too much seems okay. “Pot is, at least, less harmful for humans than alcohol is, generally speaking,” he says. “If, after a terrifying pandemic, the worst I have to show for it is that I smoke too much pot, I think that's pretty damn good.”

While research does show that marijuana can be addictive, many experts believe it to be less so than alcohol. The short- and long- term consequences of alcohol are much more known, and a lot of them are serious, like alcohol poisoning and liver failure. In contrast, the risk of dying while stoned is negligible. Still, we don't yet what the long-term negative effects of smoking weed are — since there's a very limited amount of research out on the topic — so we can't confidently call it "less risky."

Everyone is dealing with pandemic separation anxiety differently because social distancing doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all coping skill set.

“For people who can manage their cannabis use, it is unlikely to be an issue,” Powell tells Mic. But he stresses that it’s better if people with substance abuse issues abstain altogether. “Like all substances the issue is not the substance, but the person,” he says.

The conundrum stands though: Do we give up the sauce/bud and face our anxiety and mind-numbing boredom head-on, just because we probably should? It seems cruel, almost. Everyone is dealing with pandemic separation anxiety differently because social distancing doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all coping skill set. We’re all doing the best that we can and making it up as we go along so that we can bring our best selves to the world, virtual or otherwise. “Right now, you'd be surprised at what even the tiniest bit of assistance means to people, to all of us, right now," McLaughlin says.

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