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Quarantinis, estresso martinis (a splash of vodka in iced coffee – just me?), virtual happy hours… for millions of us, life in lockdown was nothing short of a permanent hangover. And while restrictions remain in place, many people are still hunkering down at home, guzzling their tipple of choice like it’s the only thing that’ll get them through corona-geddon unscathed. Plus, with Christmas almost here, there’s another reason to pop a cork…
During the early months of lockdown, a survey by Alcohol Change UK revealed two extremes when it came to pandemic partaking. First, it found that 47% of the people who drank the least before lockdown cut back further or gave up entirely (respect!). But on the other hand, one in five (approximately 8.6 million UK adults) admitted to boozing more frequently. And, worryingly, 18% of people who drank daily pre-Covid were drinking even more. Not unexpectedly, job losses are adding to the spike in booze consumption. A more recent survey by Help4Addiction found that 71% of people who’ve been made redundant are drinking more, with over a quarter upping their intake by half and 18% by a whopping 75%!
‘One in five UK adults admitted drinking more alcohol than usual during lockdown’
What’s behind this behaviour? ‘It’s a lack of coping responses to things such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety and stress,’ says Heather McKee, a leading lifestyle behaviour-change specialist (drheathermckee.co.uk). ‘When something awful occurs, we look for ways to ease our discomfort. But alcohol teaches you how to run away from your feelings, rather than understand what is driving you to drink.’
Confession time: although I know better (I’m the health and lifestyle director of this magazine, after all!), I started lockdown the boozy way, viewing life through a pinot grigio-tinted wine glass most nights. I wanted to swap the incessant worry for feeling woozy. But then I’d wake up feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the smallest thing. Duh. I know as well as anyone that booze seriously disrupts sleep. Sure, you’ll nod off quicker, but you’ll wake up before you’re properly rested – and it’s harder to achieve that deep, restorative REM sleep. Tiredness ups your hunger, too, and can make your mood unstable. Plus, too much alcohol also lowers your immunity, which in turn, can make you more susceptible to illnesses, including pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndromes (ARDS). Not what you want with a lung-attacking virus around, is it? I’ve now reined in the drinking (more below) – but it’s a hard habit to break. So if you’re worried you’ll only get your ho-ho-ho on this festive season from a glass or three, Heather has some strategies to help you leave your lockdown-lush habit behind…
‘Habits are formed through a “loop” of behaviour,’ explains Heather. ‘You have a cue/trigger that leads to certain behaviour and results in a reward. Your cue might be finally getting the kids to bed. Your behaviour/routine? A large G&T. Your reward? Relaxation. The more you do this, the more it becomes a loop. And you’re more likely to turn to this when you’re in emotional need.’
‘When we try to change habits, we tend to focus on the solution – like giving up – rather than what’s driving us to drink,’ Heather says. ‘Is it boredom, unhappiness, stress, anxiety, loneliness? Think about what time of day you’re most driven to drink, too. Or is your habit driven more by a particular emotion?’And let’s not forget the effect working from home has had on lots of us – it’s great in some ways (no commute) and crap in others (no switching off). ‘Experiment with alternative end-of-day rituals until you find one that’s fun or relaxing enough that it sticks,’ she advises. ‘Like tidying away your desk each night or reinventing a “commute” by going for a walk, run or bike ride. Perhaps you’d prefer a cup of tea and a read of the newspaper? We all need that psychological impact of shutting down.’ Noted. So, once you’ve identified your triggers…
…it’s time to find a different, healthier way to reward yourself (no, that doesn’t mean a chocolate binge instead). ‘Try something for two weeks,’ says Heather. ‘If it doesn’t work, give something else a go. Keep going until you find a reward you genuinely like, then stick with it.’ It worked for me – I gradually overcame my 6pm ‘time for a drink’ cue by going for a walk while listening to a gripping audio book – which proved to be the ultimate distraction. Plus, I developed an unprecedented love of 6.30am online barre workouts. It’s the gift that keeps on giving: I’m more positive, energised and my thighs are more toned; my butt cheeks have lifted (yes, really!); and I fit into jeans I couldn’t do up six months ago. Pliés: 1 Pinot: 0.
‘Habit change is like untangling a knot – you can’t resolve it all at once,’ Heather advises. But by unravelling the easiest “tangles” first, you’ll gain confidence and want to keep up the good habits.’ So if you’ve been drinking most nights, Heather advises starting with one booze-free day a week, then two after a couple of weeks, and so on. ‘Think about when it’s going to be easiest for you not to drink and on those days, try one of your new, healthier rewards instead.’ Happy, hangover-free festive season!
‘Put alcohol out of sight at home. Proximity can be a cue/trigger. If it’s not in sight, you’re more likely to stop and think before pouring a drink.’
‘At parties (even if they’re over Zoom), start with a non-alcoholic drink. Compete with yourself: if you lasted 60 minutes booze-free, aim for 90 minutes at the next do and so on.’
‘See good habits as a reward! We’re conditioned not to view them that way. And they’re arguably more rewarding, especially over the long-term.’
‘Make having a drink an occasion. This can help foster the mindset that it’s an occasional treat. Take your time creating a festive cocktail and sip it mindfully, while noticing the flavours.’
‘Remember the domino effect. When you indulge one bad habit, such as drinking, it knocks other healthy habits out: you won’t sleep well, your mood will suffer, and you’ll eat unhealthily.’
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