Early in the pandemic during lockdowns, some people would joke about how many empty bottles of wine and other alcohol they would see in their neighbor’s recycling bin. Given the level of stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, we’ve seen firsthand at Nutley Family Service Bureau (NFSB) how jokes can quickly turn to serious concerns.
“People would talk about how they got used to having a glass of wine each night while sitting at home,” said Staela Keegan, MSW (Master of Social Work), LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), LCADC (Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor), and Clinical Director at NFSB. “Then one glass turns into two and that casual drink eventually turns into a problem.”
Any substance use disorder is progressive. You develop a tolerance for the substance. You need to consume more to achieve the desired effect. Your body develops cravings, so you use the substance more frequently. This is how substance use disorders develop.
We’re not even talking about the opioid epidemic, which did not slow down during the pandemic. We’re talking about alcohol, a legal substance that can cause serious problems when casual, seemingly harmless use gradually turns into a disorder.
Techniques for Curbing Alcohol Use Before It Becomes a Serious Problem
Many drug and alcohol users try to brush off any notion that a problem exists by saying they only use “from time to time” or “now and then.” What exactly does that mean?
“I don’t think professionals are diagnosing substance use disorders as often as they probably should,” Staela said. “When we as counselors ask about a client’s use and the responses are dismissive and vague, we need to dig deeper to get specific answers. Otherwise, we could find out during the next session that they were arrested for DWI or suspended from their job.”
Clients will often say they have one drink at night. That can also be misleading. Is the shot of vodka actually four ounces instead of one ounce? Is that glass of wine the equivalent of two or three glasses? Clients aren’t always aware of exactly how much they’re drinking and sometimes need to have the level of drinking shown to them so they can begin to retake control.
When a client questions the seriousness of their use, Staela will sometimes see if the client can stop using on their own. She’ll also incorporate harm reduction. For example, if the client admits to risky behavior while drinking, Staela will suggest putting certain measures in place to keep the client and others out of harm’s way.
“This is less threatening than being told you have to quit cold turkey,” Staela said. “We look at ways to make adjustments in their life so they can get back on track, ideally before they experience negative consequences, which are signs of a more serious problem.”
Staela also provides psychoeducation to convince clients to make changes. For example, when a person blacks out from binge drinking, the hippocampus section of the brain goes offline and stops collecting memories. In other words, the person has consumed so much alcohol that it causes part of the brain to stop functioning. This kind of psychoeducation can be a powerful motivator and contribute to behavioral change.
“Therapy isn’t just about sitting around and talking,” Staela said. “It’s about teaching people about the science behind substance use and the negative consequences so they can start to make changes before something bad happens.”
If you or someone you know has increased alcohol consumption since the start of the pandemic and you suspect there is a problem, call The Center at NFSB today at 973-667-1884.