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How to manage your drinking during a locked down Christmas

It's easy to overdo it with alcohol without realising you are when you're under lockdown - and it can be difficult to say no to drinks when you do see your loved ones (virtually or otherwise). So how can you manage your drinking if you're locked down over Christmas?

Pubs and restaurants are closed across large areas of the country, office parties have gone virtual and festive drinks with friends are pretty much off the cards. As a result, lots of people will be drinking at home instead.

Not only have our social lives been significantly limited, we have all had to live through uncertain and anxious times. With this in mind, it's no wonder that many of us have turned to alcohol.

"Many people have found themselves drinking more since the start of the pandemic, often out of boredom or to cope with what's going on," says Jennifer Walters, a spokesperson at Drinkaware.

According to research by Alcohol Change UK, one in five people said they had been drinking more during the pandemic. A separate study by the University of Texas found that harmful drinking among adults increases the longer they spend at home in lockdown.

Christmas is also a period in which we tend to overindulge too, even if it's only over a Zoom chat. It's hard to say no to drinks with family and friends, particularly if you've not seen them much in the last year.

The Chief Medical Officers' guidelines for both men and women are to drink no more than 14 units a week, which is around six medium glasses of wine or six pints of beer. If you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread your drinking evenly over three or more days. Pregnant women should avoid alcohol altogether if they possibly can.

How drinking too much affects your health

Drinking too much can lead to serious health consequences, both mental and physical. "In the short term, alcohol can affect your sleep and your weight, and impair your judgement. Alcohol is the second biggest risk factor for developing cancer, after smoking," Walters says.

"So longer term, drinking above the low-risk guidelines increases your risk of seven types of cancer, including breast, liver and mouth cancer. Other impacts include raised blood pressure, liver disease, brain damage and mental health problems."

Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, adds: "Many of us drink more than usual at Christmas, and while for most it's not a huge problem, becoming dependent on alcohol can affect your mental health and may cause difficulty thinking clearly or problem solving or with having feelings of anxiety."

This is because alcohol is a depressant and regularly drinking above the low-risk guidelines of 14 units a week disrupts the balance of chemicals in our brain that affect mood.

"Drinking heavily and regularly is associated with symptoms of depression, although it can be difficult to separate cause and effect," Walters says. "But studies show that depression can follow on from heavy drinking and that reducing or stopping drinking can improve mood. To look after our mental health, reducing how much we drink is an important first step."

How to cut down your drinking over Christmas

Cutting down your intake of alcohol isn't always easy, but there are steps you can take to cut down.

Know your triggers

Understanding why you drink can help you manage your drinking. People, places, times and emotions like feeling sad or happy can also be linked to drinking alcohol.

"Think about what your own personal triggers to drink alcohol are and how you can change your behaviour to fit your lifestyle," Walters advises. "It might help to talk to someone about it - a friend, your GP or anonymously with a trained professional over the phone.

"To succeed in reducing your drinking you may need to break associations. For example, if you tend to reach for a drink when you come home from work (or stop work if you're working from home), plan an alternative activity to try to break this link. You could go for a walk or read your favourite book instead."

Avoid 'all or nothing' thinking

If you've cut back on your drinking and you've been doing well, it's easy to feel you've blown it completely if you slip up. However, it’s important to avoid this 'all or nothing' thinking.

"Remember this is all about moderation to be kind to yourself and get back on track as soon as possible," says Walters. "Reducing your drinking is a marathon, not a sprint, so take it day by day. Focusing on one day at a time will help the journey feel more manageable."

Get support

Telling your friends and family about your goals over Christmas can help them understand why you may turn down drinks, or perhaps taking up new activities in place of drinking. Getting their support can also help you stick to your goals.

"But there are times when friends and family might not be as supportive as you'd like and they may not even realise it," says Walters. "If this is the case, remind yourself of your 'why' and that you alone are in control of your decisions."

It's also important to remember the festive season can be very hard for some people, especially those who are isolated. "If you're worried about your own drinking or someone else's, it's more important than ever that you stay connected to people by phone or video calls to seek or offer support and strength by talking to someone," adds Walters.

You can do this anonymously in online groups, with trained advisors and counsellors or with friends or family. Organisations including Drinkaware, AA and the Alcohol Health Alliance offer advice, support and resources.

It can help to speak with your doctor if you think you have a problem with alcohol. They can provide advice on the best course of action for you.

Be prepared

There are apps you can download to help keep track of how much alcohol you are drinking, such as the Drinkaware app.

If you are planning to see family or friends, try to come up with activities at home that don't necessarily involve drinking - for example, a games night. If other people will be drinking, stock up on alcohol-free options.

It can be really easy to underestimate the amount you're drinking, especially if you're drinking spirits at home - what you assume is a single measure could easily be two or three. Use a drink measure to keep tabs on the number of units you're drinking.

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