By Lucy Corry*
The Alcohol Healthwatch is warning against increased social drinking during the lockdown.
There's a popular meme doing the rounds on social media, where a woman shows how to teach children fractions by pouring herself a glass of wine. She pours the wine in a quarter at a time to make a whole. Then she drinks it down in the same way, repeating the process until the bottle is empty. It would be funny, if it wasn't surrounded by similar binge-boozing tweets and Facebook posts.
Drinking to cope seems to be the default setting for many facing life in isolation, prompting a World Health Organisation expert to describe it as "an unhelpful coping strategy".
Last week the New Zealand Alcohol Beverages Council called for calm - and for alcohol outlets to be allowed to stay open - as panic-buyers swept through liquor stores before they were closed.
Elsewhere, authorities around the world, including French Polynesia, South Africa and Greenland, have banned alcohol sales in a bid to improve compliance with lockdown regulations and reduce family violence.
Alcohol Healthwatch director Dr Nicki Jackson said there were multiple reasons why increased drinking was a bad idea during lockdown.
"A lot of people already have heightened levels of anxiety and fear, so adding a neurotoxin like alcohol to the mix is absolutely not the right thing to be doing at this time."
- If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre
Dr Jackson said heavy drinking already results in "thousands and thousands" of emergency department admissions to New Zealand hospitals every year - "and we really don't want to be adding to the burden on our health services".
In the short-term, alcohol may lower your immunity; in the long term, it can pose serious health risks.
"Alcohol is a toxic substance and it's related to more than 200 health conditions," she said. "Ministry of Health guidelines encourage at least two alcohol-free days a week so your body can recover. Drinking every day is not a good idea."
She's unimpressed by politicians, celebrities and influencers sharing memes and talking on social media about 'day-drinking' and needing alcohol to cope.
"The majority of our social occasions, whether they're celebrations or commiserations, go hand-in-hand with alcohol in this country, but it is a depressant. There are enough pro-drinking messages in our environment, even without Covid-19. At a time when we should be looking after each other's wellbeing, I really encourage these people not to share these messages."
She's also worried about the 'influencing' happening in homes, with people drinking more around their kids.
"Children pick up cues very easily and if they see you drinking to cope, that becomes normalised very quickly.
"Research shows that children don't like their parents drinking; they don't like the impact on their behaviour or being around them when they're tipsy or worse."
If you're worried that you or someone in your household is starting to drink too much, Jackson suggests setting some rules.
"Work out a protocol for your family about drinking - mark the alcohol-free days on your calendar and stick to them. Be really vigilant about drinking ... and call the Alcohol and Drug Helpline for support.
"I know we're going through a really difficult time, but this is an opportune chance to try health-promoting strategies, like catching up on sleep. Exercise if you can, make healthy meals during the day, call your friends and try new practices to help get you through."
Lotta Dann, who has been sober for eight years and runs support website Living Sober, said she understands why people might turn to alcohol to cope with the new realities of lockdown.
"I totally get it, but it's such a flawed coping mechanism. It actually adds misery on top of misery.
"Yes, you can put rules in place about your alcohol use, but what's really good to do is to be ok with all the emotions, the sadness, the stress and the anxiety. That's what will actually make a difference. Don't try to numb yourself and avoid it constantly, because it doesn't work and it will make it worse.
"It's better to try doing all those things like physical movement, making yourself a lovely cup of tea, appreciating a little square of chocolate, listening to mindfulness stuff online and connecting with buddies. They don't give you the same lovely dopamine rush that alcohol gives you, or the numbing, but in the long run they're much more effective."
*Lucy Corry is a Wellington journalist and recipe writer