March 30, 2020

How mass trauma affects alcohol use

woman alone in home window

The coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic has radically changed daily life for most Australians, creating mass uncertainty about the future.

While anxiety and even panic are normal human responses to crisis, managing those emotions – especially when we’re in crisis – can be a serious challenge.

This is a traumatic time for Australia and the world as leadership and individual citizens struggle to cope with the reality of the virus and what it means for our lives.

If we look at how people have reacted to other events of mass trauma, those past experiences should serve as a warning to us that we need to be careful about the coping strategies we use to manage the current adversity.

Alcohol use goes up after traumatic events

In the wake of other experiences of mass trauma, such as terrorism, mass shootings, natural disasters like hurricanes, and economic events such as the 2008 global financial crisis an overall increase in alcohol use was recorded.1, 2

In addition to massive events that can affect whole populations, individual stressors such as job loss, financial strain, the death of a loved one, and relationship breakdown can also lead to an increase in a person’s alcohol consumption.1

People who currently experience issues with alcohol, or have in the past, might be more vulnerable to using alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with stress.3

What is concerning is that the current crisis is creating new stressors.

For example, fearing that yourself or a loved one might be infected with COVID-19 and struggling to navigate this climate of fear and uncertainty might compound other stressors that already exist.

Existing stress can get worse

We know that 40% of Australians reported drinking alcohol as one way they cope with stress,4 and that many of the stressors reported by Australians pre-COVID-19 are likely to be increased as the pandemic unfolds.

The Australian Psychological Society conducts a stress and wellbeing survey that includes questions about common stressors. The most recent survey in 2015 found the most common stressors were personal financial issues and health issues.4

Other relevant sources of stress included:

  • the health of those close to you
  • the economy
  • and the political climate.4

This is worrying, because we know that many Australians have lost jobs or taken pay cuts, and there is real concern about the economic impacts of the pandemic. People are worried about their health and the health of their loved ones. This crisis is a challenge for every government in the world.

For many of us, the current level of stress is unprecedented.

Other reasons people might drink more alcohol

People might be struggling to adapt to disrupted routines and be unable to continue hobbies such as going to the gym, attending dance or art classes, or simply sharing meals with friends.

Relationships that were already strained can deteriorate further under new pressures such as everyone being in the home all day.

For people who are already living in a volatile relationship, this can be a significant problem. If alcohol use increases in an already abusive home, risks can increase - Australian research finds alcohol is frequently involved in domestic violence incidents, and when alcohol is involved the risk of someone being injured by their abuser increases.5

Parents and other carers might also be overwhelmed by having their kids home full time, especially if they are trying to work from home, and regular school holiday activities are unavailable.

This is also an important time for parents and carers to role-model healthy coping techniques to their children and help them to improve their own stress-management skills.

Feelings of loneliness, social isolation, and boredom can be very challenging to manage, especially when outcomes and timelines are uncertain. It’s hard to be separated from family, friends and colleagues.

What now?

While people might struggle with feelings of powerlessness and an inability to affect the course of global events, we can all seize the agency we do have by deciding how we personally will respond to the crisis.

Although sometimes challenging, staying connected with others and using healthy coping mechanisms is critical to maintaining good mental health.

The next article in this series will include a range of creative ways that you can take positive action to stay connected with others so we can all get through this together.

Need help?

National Alcohol and Other Drug hotline

1800 250 015

Get help for alcohol and other drug issues.

1800RESPECT

1800 737 732

National free, 24/7 hotline for anyone experiencing or at risk of domestic violence.

Lifeline

13 11 14

24/7 Crisis and suicide support service.

Men's Referral Service

1300 766 491

Help for men to stop using family violence.

Mensline Australia

1300 789 978

Support for men with family and relationship difficulties.

Parentline Victoria

13 22 89
Support for parents, 8am to midnight 7 days a week.

Help and Support

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  1. Keyes K, Hatzenbuehler M, Hasin D. Stressful life experiences, alcohol consumption, and alcohol use disorders: the epidemiologic evidence for four main types of stressors. Psychopharmacology. 2011;218:1-17.
  2. de Goejj M, Suhrcke M, Toffolutti V, van de Mheen D, Schoenmakers T, Kunst A. How economic crises affect alcohol consumption and alcohol-related health problems: A realist systematic review. Social science & medicine. 2015;131:131-46.
  3. North C, Ringwalt C, Downs D, Derzon J, Galvin D. Postdisaster course of alcohol use disorders in systematically studied survivors of 10 disasters. Archives of general psychology. 2011;68(2):173-80.
  4. Australian Psychological Society. Stress & wellbeing: how Australians are coping with life. APS; 2015.
  5. Curtis A, Vandenberg B, Mayshak R, Coomber K, Hyder S, Walker A, et al. Alcohol use in family, domestic and other violence: Findings from a cross-sectional survey of the Australian population. Drug and alcohol review. 2019;38:349-58.

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