Fear and Stress about COVID-19 is Related to More Drinking, Survey Finds

alcohol covid-19

The survey found that stress and fear caused by the coronavirus pandemic related to increased alcohol consumption.

(June 18, 2020) – People drank more during the COVID-19 quarantine than they did before the lockdown, as they grappled with stress and fear caused by the pandemic. That is the finding from a survey by USF St. Petersburg psychology professor Lindsey Rodriguez, who asked hundreds of individuals about their drinking habits following the March stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“We know from research that people drink in times of stress to cope with changes associated with that experience,” said Rodriguez, an expert on social connections and alcohol use. “The next natural step for us was to examine drinking habits during the lockdown.”

Rodriguez surveyed 754 people across the U.S. from April 17 to 23. Participants either agreed or disagreed to statements related to perceived threat and psychological distress around the coronavirus. Statements included “I am afraid of the coronavirus,” “I am stressed around other people because I worry I’ll catch the coronavirus,” and “The coronavirus outbreak has impacted my psychological health negatively.” Participants then answered questions about their drinking habits over the last 30 days, which largely overlapped with stay-at-home orders across the majority of states.

The results suggest psychological distress caused by the pandemic is related to people drinking more. While the survey found that both men and women increased their drinking frequency – how many times someone consumes alcohol over a period of time – in response to psychological distresses related to the coronavirus, women also consumed more drinks per instance than before. For this reason, Rodriguez suggests that continued monitoring, particularly among women, should be conducted as this pandemic continues to evolve.

Rodriguez also found that people who have kids in their house drank more during the lockdown than people who didn’t have kids.

Lindsey Rodriguez

Lindsey Rodriguez is an applied social and health psychologist at USF St. Petersburg.

“Having children at home during this period can be stressful for parents, who are also often trying to manage several tasks at once – homeschooling, keeping kids engaged, household tasks, oftentimes work,” she said.

Rodriguez decided to explore these issues after seeing a series of news segments about people’s alcohol consumption in response to staying at home.

“I read business-related articles about alcohol sales increasing,” she said. “I remember wondering if those sales meant people were drinking more in general or drinking more at home since bars were shut down. That motivated us to look into the psychological changes that might cause people to change their drinking habits.”

There are many stress factors at play here, noted Rodriguez. Once the lockdown was imposed, many people’s routine was turned upside down as individuals faced social isolation, health concerns and financial uncertainty.

Part of what Rodriguez explored in the study is called the “self-medication hypothesis,” in which people respond to negative experiences by increasing substance use. While alcohol is a common substance people use for self-medication, others may turn to drugs or unhealthy habits like gambling.

“There are all sorts of distraction-related behaviors that people use to focus their attention away from the feelings that result from negative experiences, and COVID-19 has definitely resulted in negative experiences for the United States,” Rodriguez said.

This research is in the process of being published and was funded by three USF research grants totaling $25,000.