When it comes to alcohol, where do you draw the line between treat and habit? Do you ever find yourself drinking to make yourself feel better? And do you know when to stop?

Self Care Week also happens to coincide with Alcohol Awareness Week, with this year’s focus being on the relationship between alcohol and mental health.

Considering the year we’ve all had, it’s no wonder that many of us are feeling a little more stressed or anxious than usual. But rhese feelings can cause our drinking to creep up.

Research from Alcohol Change UK found that over half of UK drinkers have turned to alcohol for mental health reasons during the pandemic, but of that figure, four in ten drinkers said turning to drink actually worsened their mental health. Their research also found that almost one in three people have been drinking at increasing or high-risk levels over the past six months.

Alcohol is a depressant. It may make you feel better at first, ultimately it will exacerbate any existing mental health concerns, particularly anxiety and depression.

Would you consider yourself to have dangerous alcohol habits?

There are messages we tell ourselves to normalise our drinking, which we need to watch out for. These include any of the following reasons:

  • It helps me relax
  • I deserve it, I’ve had a hard day
  • I don’t feel good and alcohol cheers me up
  • My mates drink way more than me, my drinking must be okay
  • Everyone I know drinks
  • I can’t stop right before Christmas, that’s anti-social
  • My drinking can’t be that bad … I am still functioning and going to work

Knowing how much is too much can be confusing when it comes to alcohol. Most of us know when we have overdone it (usually the following morning) but it’s the cumulative, long-term effect that can creep up on us. Before we know it, we may have developed a drinking habit without even realising it, and we may be drinking more than we like or should.

As well as the impact on mental health, alcohol overuse is linked to liver disease and seven forms of cancer, as well as other significant health impacts.

Also, alcohol can prevent the absorption of some prescribed medication and may interfere with how effective they can be. Always read the label or speak to a pharmecist.

How much is too much?

Well, the low-risk guidelines for both men and women state the following:

You are safest not to drink more than 14 units per week.  This equates to roughly six pints of lager or one and a half bottles of wine.

It is best to spread this drinking over three days or more during the week, with several alcohol-free days each week.

If you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink at all, to keep the risks to you and your baby to a minimum.

Alcohol Change UK has a brilliant online unit calculator, where you can check how many units are in a particular drink or to check how much you’re drinking.

I’m worried I might be drinking too much

There are steps you can take to reduce your alcohol intake, and with support you can make a real difference. Here are some tips:

  • Keep a drinking diary for a few weeks to help you understand your drinking pattern.
  • Try downloading an app to help you keep track. You can find some wellbeing app recommendations via ORCHA.
  • Consider drinking an alcohol-free or low-alcohol version of your favourite. Alternatives have improved a lot over recent years and some are even beating full-strength competitors at industry awards.
  • It’s okay to say no and don’t feel peer pressured into drinking, even if someone thinks it’s okay to try and pressure you. Not everyone drinks alcohol, you don’t have to explain yourself. Be strong.
  • Put a jug of iced water on the dinner table, so you can alternate water in between each drink. This will help prevent you topping up your glass out of habit.
  • Plan to have alcohol-free days each week. This is a good way to cut down and give your body a rest, as well as boosting your immune system and improving your mental health.
  • As much as possible, try to have something to eat before and during your drinking. This will slow the rate alcohol is absorbed into your blood stream, and help you pace.
  • Try swapping your regular wine or beer glass for a smaller one, you’ll be amazed what a difference it can make.
  • Set yourself a limit before you start, and stick to it. It can also help to set a limit on how much you’re going to spend, if you’re going out.
  • If you’re out social drinking (at a safe distance!) it’s best to try and avoid getting involved in ’rounds’, so you’re in control. Again, you don’t owe anyone an explanation, but you can simply say you’re trying to reduce your intake.
  • Know your triggers, which make you more likely to have a drink so you can make active choices that promote healthier alternatives. Had a tough day at work? Go for a brisk walk in the fresh air instead. Feeling low? Give someone a ring for a chat.
  • If you’re saving money on alcohol and can afford to do so, why not reward yourself with a small treat using the money you saved?
  • Finally, you don’t need to cut alcohol out altogether straight away. Cut back a little each day, so every day feels like a success.

If you’re worried about your drinking habits, or you’re just curious about how your drinking might be affecting your overall health, Alcohol Change UK has produced an interactive quiz.

Where can I turn for support?

Sometimes we all need a bit of help, and there’s no shame in asking for support to help you get on top of your drinking habits.

More information can be found on the Alcohol Change UK website and also on the NHS website.

Mental health support forum Togetherall (previously Big White Wall) has a self-help course on cutting down your drinking.

SMART Recovery have online meetings, which you can find details of on their website. In response to the current crisis, they are providing a call-back service bgetween 9am and 5pm. You can request a call by emailing support@smarttrecovery.org.uk and giving your name and phone number.

Alcoholics Anonymous have also moved their peer-support meetings online to be able to continue to provide support during the pandemic. You can ring their helpline any time day or night on 0800 917 7650 or email help@aamail.org

Or if you’re worried about someone else’s drinking, Al-Anon UK provide support for families and friends of alcoholics.

And don’t forget, if you’d like to talk to someone about the reasons you turn to alcohol, you can talk to us. We can offer a course of telephone or online counselling with a member of our psychological team. So get in touch with us. Call us on 0800 389 8820 or make an enquiry online.