Lockdown alcohol ban - anxiety can be managed

For South Africans who enjoy a daily sundowner for stress relief and relaxation, extension of the national lockdown has sparked anxiety about their rapidly-dwindling supplies and the prospect of “going dry” until the end of April – but the good news is they will probably cope better than they think, and it’s good for their health and their pockets too.

South Africans’ reliance on their daily tipple, perhaps more than most would care to admit, is highlighted by a 500% spike in local Google searches on the alcohol ban and homemade booze recipes[1], and reports of bootlegging, bartering and supplies being traded on WhatsApp groups[2].

But those looking forward to being able to replenish their alcohol stocks this Friday (17 April) had their hopes dashed when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced extension of the lockdown to the end of April.

Those who consume two to three standard drinks a day are unlikely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms, although they may experience “some subjective discomfort”, says Dr Lize Weich convenor of the Substance Abuse Special Interest Group of the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP).

“The threat of a pandemic of a potentially fatal illness and its effects on the economy may increase stress, anxiety and depression rates and some people will use substances like alcohol to try to cope, but there are healthier coping strategies,” she said.

Dr Weich advised that it could help to mentally prepare for “day zero” by cutting down on daily consumption to make stocks last and seeing the situation in a positive light.

“There is much to be gained from an alcohol-free few weeks – less calories consumed to compensate for not being able to exercise as before, saving money, and improving general health and immunity.

“We live in a rushed society, with lots of stressors and demands, and many people get into a habit of using substances like alcohol to cope, to obtain chemical relief from all the stress. Now may be the perfect time to develop skills to cope with these stressors in a healthier way,” she said.

Dr Weich suggested strategies such as mindfulness, meditation, home-based exercise and healthy distractions like hobbies and reading, or learning a new skill, and drawing on the wealth of online resources for how-to and self-help.

Alcohol use affects virtually every organ in the body and contributes to mental health disorders, she said, and adversely affects the immune system causing greater vulnerability to respiratory and viral infections.

“The lockdown and threat of infection is a good motivator to improve overall health. Most people would want their lungs, airways and immune system to be functioning optimally amidst the threat of COVID-19 infection, and avoiding or reducing alcohol and tobacco intake can potentially aid in this.

“There is the added benefit of cost savings in the difficult economic times ahead, as well as limiting social contact and risk of contracting the disease by reducing the need for going out to shop,” she said.

Dr Weich said while studies had shown that mild alcohol use, two standard drinks a day for men and one for women, could be associated with lower risk of vascular disease such as heart attack and stroke, the harm of alcohol use follows a steep “J curve”, rapidly increasing its damaging effects and potential for increased health problems and mortality.

For those who do experience significant withdrawal symptoms – such as increased anxiety, difficulty sleeping, physical symptoms like tremors, headaches, sweating or nausea, or more severe effects such as hallucinations or seizures – she advised consulting a medical practitioner or using online medical help resources to avoid face-to-face contact if possible.

 

Resources for help:

Alcoholics Anonymous SA: 24/7 Helpline 0861 435 722. AA meetings have switched to online due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a list of online meetings is at https://www.aasouthafrica.org.za/Meetings.aspx

SA Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) 24/7 Helplines: 0800 21 22 23 / 0800 70 80 90

SADAG WhatsApp support (9am-4pm): 076 882 2775 / or SMS 31393 or 32312 and a counsellor will call you back

Department of Social Development Substance Abuse Line 24hr helpline: 0800 12 13 14 or SMS 32312

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