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Financial Stress and Alcohol Use: Is There a Connection?

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COVID-19 has brought unprecedented changes to our daily lives, not the least of which is a major shift in the economy. Many people are working from home, while many others have lost work, had their hours cut, or put their small businesses on hold. In short, many people are experiencing financial stress. In the midst of this, some might be concerned about how they are coping, including how much they are drinking.

But is there really a connection between money trouble and alcohol? The answer is that it depends on the person, but there are factors that can put you at higher risk. Here’s what the data shows, and what you can do to look out for yourself and your loved ones during these difficult times.

Do People Really Drink More During Hard Times?

financial stress and alcohol use man underwater
Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

Overall, some evidence suggests yes. But the same studies show that things vary quite a bit depending on the individual. Financial stress is by no means a guarantee that a person will drink more alcohol. For some it may even be the opposite.

Like many things, it comes down to an individual’s normal drinking habits, personal history, psychology, and overall circumstances. The example of unemployment rates vs alcohol use illustrates the point very nicely.

Unemployment and Alcoholism

Unemployment is a common cause of financial distress, but there has been conflicting evidence about whether it increases or decreases a person’s drinking. One 2012 study tried to get to the bottom of this, examining unemployment rates and alcohol use state by state. The study found that binge drinking, drunk driving, alcohol abuse, and alcohol use disorder (AUD) increased overall when unemployment was higher.

But why, you might ask? Here the plot thickens. The same study identified at least four ways that unemployment might affect a person’s drinking, in either direction:

An unemployed person might drink more because:

  • They have more free time
  • They feel stressed or anxious about their future

But they might drink less because:

  • They are trying to save money
  • They are attending fewer work-related social events

These factors line up differently for each person. This might explain why studies have shown varied results, and why some people actually drink less when they don’t have work. It also gives some insight into why the relationship of alcohol use to overall income is so complex.

Alcohol and Wealth

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, the wealthy may actually drink more than people with lower incomes, and the above factors are key to this. Higher expendable income, social events, business get-togethers, and in some cases more leisure time—all of these can add up to more alcohol consumption. In fact, a recent study of young adults showed that those who received financial support from their parents actually drank more overall than those who didn’t.

Another study, however, found a different trend—higher AUD among college students who were concerned about paying their bills. And this brings us to an important point: While wealthier students may consume more alcohol in general, it’s possible that those who struggle financially and also drink are more likely to develop an addiction.

In other words, hidden within the overall numbers are some real risks. Despite the varying results in different studies, there are some people who really do struggle with excessive drinking during increased financial stress.

Who Is At Higher Risk?

One of the key factors appears to be self-medication. The link between general stress and alcohol use is well documented. For those who often drink to cope with negative emotions, financial stress may be a significant drinking trigger. This may be especially true for people with a history of AUD, and may be a major reason why the 2012 study found an overall connection between alcohol abuse and high unemployment.

Other factors that can put a person at higher risk include the age they began drinking, and their gender. According to one study, those who start drinking earlier in adolescence may be more likely to use alcohol to manage stress. Two other studies found that men were more likely to drink heavily in response to financial trouble than women were.

Alcohol, Financial Stress, and Your Health

All statistics aside, what matters most is how financial problems affect you as an individual. If you find that you’re the kind of person who only drinks socially, and would prefer not to spend the extra money, you may have nothing to worry about. And on the flipside, if you notice that you’re drinking more than you’d like to be, regardless of the reason it’s best to seek help.

That said, if you recognize any above factors in yourself, such as a history of AUD, a tendency to self-medicate, or a tendency to drink too much in your spare time, keep an eye on yourself in times of financial trouble. And if you recognize these factors in a loved one, keep in touch with them, and make sure they’re doing well during these difficult times. There are other factors as well, including isolation, that can put a person at risk for AUD during the era of social distancing.

Affordable Solutions

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol during a time of increased financial stress, you should know that there are many low-cost options that can help you through. Alcoholics Anonymous is still operating, and has online meetings available. The same is true of some secular options, including LifeRing and SMART Recovery.

Finally, if you’re looking for comprehensive support for alcohol use disorder or overdrinking, Ria Health may be an excellent option for you. Our online program can be done 100 percent from your smartphone, and offers access to physicians, recovery coaches, anti-craving medications, and more. It’s even covered by many major insurance plans; you may be able to join at little to no cost.

Get in touch with a member of our team today, or learn more about how it works.

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