13:16 PM

Epling: Prescription for Handling Stress: Replace alcohol with these 3 behaviors


John W. Epling, Jr., M.D., is a family medicine practitioner. He also serves as medical director of Carilion Clinic Employee Health and Wellness.


Social distancing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has often separated us from coworkers, friends and loved ones. Year-long measures to keep us safe have helped us avoid the virus, and they have also led to increased stress, boredom and loneliness. The pandemic’s unprecedented conditions have triggered many people to drink alcoholic beverages more frequently. 

Carilion Clinic’s Addiction Task Force Group on Alcohol Use Disorder works daily to observe the effects of alcohol misuse and abuse and to minimize the impact on individuals, families and the communities we serve. Alcohol Awareness Month is an opportunity to reinforce our system-wide efforts to offer alternatives to drinking alcohol, encourage appropriate alcohol use and highlight the resources available to help recover from alcohol use disorder and addiction. 

The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC) reports sales at its stores rose more than $173 million last year. That’s $42 million more than 2019 -- a 32 percent increase – even though sales at bars and restaurants were down due to COVID-19 restrictions. Social media has become a venue for individuals who share stories, photos and even videos of their drinking alone or with others to celebrate milestones achieved during the pandemic. 

Alcohol, unlike some other addictive substances, can be used responsibly. Used in moderation, most people can enjoy a libation from time to time without any ill effects. However, our Addiction Task Force and our community partners realize there’s a clear and present danger in the trends observed during the pandemic. 

In my work as a primary care physician, I’ve witnessed how boredom and isolation take their toll through risky behaviors - specifically excessive drinking used as an escape. Instead of escaping, we could use the pandemic as an opportunity to encourage responsible behaviors and focus on alternatives to relieving stress and anxiety. 

Here’s my prescription to increase stress-relief and reduce alcohol consumption, especially as more and more individuals receive their vaccinations and engage in “normal” life again: 

  • Get Outside: Venture into our beautiful Virginia's Blue Ridge region and enjoy the abundance of our natural resources. Exercise or a good walk around our many local parks are proven ways to relieve the pressures of everyday life and the extra pressures imposed by COVID-19. 
  • Connect with others: If you're feeling cooped up indoors, find new ways to interact with family and friends. Play board games, complete puzzles or go for walks. When socially distancing, use technology in a creative way to connect with others – tell stories, play interactive games, etc. The joys of human connections far outweigh having an alcoholic drink. 
  • Develop a hobby: Explore interests that take you away from your everyday stressors. Read, cook a meal with others, play music, or use your hands to create something. 

If you’ve never drunk alcohol before, don’t use the ongoing pandemic restrictions as an excuse to begin. Be mindful of how an alcoholic drink would affect your body. If you’re thirsty, your physical need should be satisfied through a glass of water or another healthy beverage. 

Finally, don’t be drawn in by advertising that glamorizes alcoholic beverages. The life they show you is not contingent on having a drink in your hand. 

The consequences of risky behaviors involving alcohol are numerous. Many of my patients have seen the benefit of following my prescription above. They report an increase in energy, a better feeling about themselves and their lives, a renewed sense of purpose and better health overall. If alcohol is a problem for you, or if you’re experiencing problems from stress, boredom and loneliness and want to stay healthy, get in touch with your family doctor.