Post-Pandemic Drinking: Consider Harm Reduction
Post Pandemic Help – Matone Counseling & Testing – Harm Reduction
More time at home over the past two years brought boredom, stress, sourdough bread, and a significant uptick in drinking habits for many folks. Instead of considering yourself a social drinker, perhaps in lieu of social outings, you became a daily drinker, moderate drinker, or a right-when-the-clock-turns-five drinker. Wherever you may fall on the spectrum of substance use habits, it can be helpful to reflect on your relationship with alcohol. Now that we are beginning to enter a new phase of lessened restrictions and determining what, dare-I say it “post-pandemic” life looks like — among things like Tiger King, whipped coffee, and baking bread; we might also want to leave our increased drinking behind.
For many folks, it can be tempting to avoid reflecting on one’s substance use due to the abstinence-only messaging that has been prevalent throughout the past decades. These messages give the impression that any concerns about one’s alcohol use mean it is time to abstain completely. However, many experts in the field believe “Not all substance use is abuse,”(Denning and Little), and consider substance use on a spectrum ranging from “benign to chaotic,” (Anthony et. al.); meaning there can be a less risky, non-abusive way to enjoy alcohol. While abstinence is certainly the appropriate measure to take for many folks, there is a large grey area of drinkers who would benefit from a harm reduction strategy that helps decrease negative outcomes. Undoubtedly, the pandemic changed many folks’ relationships with alcohol and it might be time to employ some strategies to get back to enjoying alcohol in a healthier way.
Harm reduction, as it pertains to alcohol, is a framework used in substance use and mental health treatment, as well as the public health field, that focuses on the prevention of substance use disorders and other negative outcomes associated with drinking. This approach encourages folks to consider their personal risk when it comes to drinking, and take steps to minimize these through helpful strategies when alcohol is involved. Harm reduction is typically employed when folks are uninterested in abstinence, but still want to take action to minimize the negative impacts of their drinking. A core part of harm reduction is a non-judgmental stance that meets people where they are in their substance use journey, rather than communicating “Abstinence or nothing!”
Additionally, folks who are not necessarily dependent on alcohol, or problem drinkers, could also benefit from considering harm reduction. As mentioned before, a lot of people increased their drinking during the pandemic and may want to make some changes. So, how to start?
First, consider your personal habits around alcohol and what you like and dislike. Through this, you can begin to identify the risks or impacts of drinking that you don’t enjoy. These might include spending money, drinking more than you’d like on weeknights, poor sleep, weight gain, etc. Next, think through ways to decrease the unwanted effects.
Here are some possible strategies for minimizing risk when drinking alcohol:
- Eat before drinking
- Drink a glass of water in between drinks
- Take days off from drinking (or weeks, or months!)
- If you’re used to pouring a drink right at 5:00, try delaying by increments of 30 minutes
- Set a drink limit when socially drinking and stick to it
- Stop drinking at least an hour before bed
- Consider not keeping alcohol in your home
As you can probably tell, these strategies aren’t revolutionary. You know your routine and habits best, which means you can think through what might be helpful for you in minimizing alcohol-related risks. All it takes is making the time to think through the unwanted impacts of your alcohol use and incorporating some strategies to mitigate these impacts.
You might be reading this and already thinking that these smaller strategies aren’t gonna cut it. If you’re curious about whether your drinking behaviors might benefit from harm reduction OR abstinence, this is a great thing to explore with a mental health provider. Don’t be afraid to reflect on your relationship with alcohol and be willing to make some changes.
Denning, P., Little, J. (2012). Practicing harm reduction psychotherapy: An alternative approach to addiction (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Anthony, J. C.; Warner, L. A., & Kessler, R.C. (1994). Comparative epidemiology of dependence on tobacco, alcohol, controlled substances, and inhalants: Basic findings from the National Comorbidity Survey. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 2, 244-268.