Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

Alcohol Awareness: How to make changes after recovering from social isolation

5/6/2021 by Marcia W. Johnson, L.I.C.S.W., M.S.W., and Kileen Smyth, L.I.C.S.W., M.S.W.


Before 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have developed adequate coping skills to deal with normal stress. You may have had a regular dining routine, planned ahead for meals, exercised regularly and drove your car to your job every day. You enjoyed weekly meetings with colleagues, lunches out with friends, and several days a week you worked out at the group classes at the gym. You had friends to dine with, have a glass of wine with, go on vacations with, and occasionally attend religious services. You may have had a daily meditation practice and didn't worry much about what was coming tomorrow. 

But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Everyone experienced different repercussions with the COVID-19 pandemic, with shutdowns, social distancing, masking, quarantining and isolation. People were — and still are — worried about their health, the health of others who may have been exposed, the deaths of loved ones, loss of income, unending news reports, and lack of social support. 

2021 seemed to be the year to reenergize coping mechanisms for the current environment. Pandemic chaos led many to overeat, binge-watch TV and movies, obsess on never-ending news, and drink more to cope with the pandemic. 

People were drinking more because they were bored, lonely, angry, sad, isolated or frozen. Many tried to cope with feelings by numbing out. Alcohol relaxes many of those underlying fight-or-flight symptoms, which are so prevalent during times such as these, and they are extremely uncomfortable to feel. The drinking was not necessarily problematic in itself, but it may create future problems. 

Having a cocktail at the end of a stressful day is relaxing, and alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which calms heightened emotions and anxiety. Withdrawal happens when alcohol leaves the body, and that increases muscle tension, decreases blood flow and increases the heart rate — much like anxiety. What appeared to be a good coping skill to deal with daily stress the next day tends to create more anxiety and difficulty coping. Over time, this may evolve into problematic ongoing alcohol consumption. 

Brain science indicates that when a person drinks alcohol, "happy chemicals," such as dopamine and serotonin, flood the brain with positive and comfortable feelings. Alcohol use becomes problematic over time, when repeated use brings those chemicals so frequently to the brain that the brain decreases production of its own natural "happy chemicals." Repeated regular alcohol use causes the brain to deplete itself of serotonin and dopamine, thus requiring increased alcohol for a person to feel normal. 

Some of the most common misconceptions about drinking include the ideas of "drinking is only a problem if I drink every day," "I am not drinking at home alone, so it is not a problem," or "I do not drink to intoxication." Alcohol consumption becomes problematic when it starts to negatively affect social interactions, work responsibility and interpersonal relationships. 

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as "a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among the brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual's life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences."

The good news is that you can make a conscious decision to stop drinking, and then change your attitude and your actions to support that decision. Using cognitive behavioral therapy skills, you can understand that thoughts influence emotions, which then influences your behavior. This teaches that you can decide to take a break from alcohol and implement other behavioral goals or coping skills to cope with ongoing stress. 

Some important facts to understand about alcohol use disorder are: 

  • If a person wants to stop drinking so that it doesn't become more of a problem, virtual and in-person Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are held every day in Rochester. This would be a first step in trying to stop on your own. 
  • Treatment also can consist of inpatient care, residential care and intensive outpatient programs. 
  • Several types of therapy are used to treat addiction, including behavioral activation, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectic behavioral therapy, experiential therapies, medication-assisted treatment, 12-step facilitation-assisted therapy, and motivational enhancement therapy. 
  • If alcohol use has become an immediate problem, a number of chemical dependence treatment programs are admitting in the community, and you can find them through Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  • If you want to know if your drinking is a problem, you can schedule an evaluation at Mayo Clinic or another program in your area. 
  • Recovery from alcohol, as some say, is a "one-day-at-a-time adventure." Being sober is not the same thing as living in recovery. 
  • Social connection is one of the key components of recovery, due to the importance of ongoing support in making a decision and remaining abstinent. 

Why wait until drinking alcohol every day has a physiological addictive effect on your brain and you have to work harder to remain abstinent? Why not identify healthy coping skills now and decide to schedule activities in your day instead of taking a drink? Why not take a walk outside with your family, go for a bike ride or practice yoga. Call someone who needs to hear your voice, or play some music and dance in the living room. Connect with an app that promotes mindful medication, such as Headspace, for a few minutes. Now is the time to make 2021 the best start for the rest of your life. 

Marcia W. Johnson, L.I.C.S.W., M.S.W., is a social worker and therapist in Integrated Behavioral Health. She has worked over 20 years in psychiatry and behavioral health at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She runs groups for senior vitality, as well as cognitive behavior therapy for depression and anxiety. She also volunteers as a mental health supervisor at the Compassion Counseling Center.

Kileen Smyth, L.I.C.S.W., M.S.W., is a clinical social worker and therapist for Integrated Behavioral Health. She provides individual and group therapy for patients dealing with anxiety, panic, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, insomnia, and an array of other family and life transition challenges. She also participates in group supervision, educates colleagues and enjoys the opportunity to network with health colleagues throughout the Rochester community.