Pre-pandemic, mindful drinking and sober curiosity were gaining momentum among health-conscious women like you, before the strain of lockdown life catapulted alcohol up the list of coping mechanisms. As experts warn of the public health fallout, we examine how social media made you thirsty...
Her followers are more accustomed to shots of her posing in Ganni against a Notting Hill terrace. But tonight, influencer Lucy Williams tells her 500k-plus followers on Instagram that she’s ‘staying in in’, beside a picture of a rustic kitchen table bearing a hearty-looking meal and a glass of orange wine harvested from organic Romanian grapes. ‘Dreamy’, ‘lush’, ‘details please’, flow the comments.
It’s a similarly appealing scene over on Camille Charriere’s feed (1m), where a rosé-filled vintage coupe is flanked by a lit Diptyque candle. Victoria Saceanu Gregersen (85k) serves up an Aperol spritz with a floral statement sleeve for ‘weekend drinks’, while Laura Jackson (138k) pines for ‘aperitivo hour’, matching her yellow salted-rim margarita with a lemon-hued knit beneath dungarees. They’re typical of the posts of influencers at home that you’ve probably become accustomed to while scrolling through your social media feeds. But you may not have clocked the unlikely accessory tying these aspirational backdrops together.
Many can chart the virus’s progress through the way in which alcohol became the uninvited guest to the dull party of our locked-down lives. Riesling on Zoom, tinnies in a tier-two park, an Aperol Spritz while you ‘ate out to help out’ and back to Merlot on the sofa soaking up Bridgerton. This isn’t just anecdotal; data on alcohol sales post March 2020 suggests that we were collectively drinking more units and on more days of the week.
That we were a nation driven to the bottle is unlikely to surprise you in the context of a once-in-a-generation news event. But as researchers publish their findings on pandemic drinking patterns, a more complicated picture is emerging; one in which alcohol’s primary function has shifted from social lubricant to self-care staple. In a year that sent screen-time stats soaring, how much is social media to blame?
To understand just how much the pandemic has altered our relationship with alcohol, cast your mind back to a time when forgoing booze was considered as cool as it was clever. Back in 2017, journalist Ruby Warrington founded mindful drinking community Club SÖDA (Sober Or Debating Abstinence) NYC, introducing us to the idea that drinking less – or not at all – could be another tool in your wellness toolkit. Her ‘sober curious’ approach won her legions of fans and, in 2019, she published a book of the same name.
By the time Covid arrived on our shores, four million people were taking part in Dry January, their thirst quenched by a UK alcohol-free drinks business worth £143m. And ‘quit lit’ – memoirs of people who’ve either stopped drinking or built a more intentional relationship with alcohol – was flying off the shelves.
But within months of the pandemic landing, Brits’ boozing habits appeared to divide into two camps. According to the charity Alcohol Change, one in three Brits have reduced their consumption over the past 12 months. And yet, data from the insights company Nielsen shows that, between March and July, we spent £7.7bn on alcohol in UK supermarkets – £1.9bn more than in the same period the previous year.
It’s a trend supported by research from King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, published in May last year, which found that 29% of Brits had upped their alcohol intake since the start of lockdown. What’s more, a study by the University of East Anglia (UEA), published in January, found that women have been drinking at home more frequently than men during the pandemic. So what changed?
Well, for starters, life as you knew it. According to a recent WH reader survey, 33% of you have tried to ease the emotional strain of the pandemic by drinking more alcohol (compared with 48% who found relief via HIIT and 50% in reading). The UEA study cited, in particular, the triggers of homeschooling – of which data suggests women did more – and financial worries, as well as a sense of loneliness.
They’re pressures that Denise Palmer-Davies is all too familiar with. The 42-year-old PR director from Surrey never drank at home before the pandemic. ‘I’d only consume alcohol if I was out after work,’ she tells WH. ‘Then, during the first lockdown, I’d work on my laptop with a G&T at 4pm in the garden while my two children played.’
It was an occasional treat that evolved into a more regular occurrence. ‘The demands of caring for and homeschooling my daughters, aged seven and three, alongside my full-time job, sent my stress levels into overdrive – at times, the walls felt as though they were closing in. The one thing that took the edge off was a drink. On WhatsApp, the consensus among my friends who also had kids was that we were all reaching for a drink by 5pm, and it was actively encouraged and joked about. Memes of mums swigging booze have been continually shared – it feels like it’s acceptable.’ Of course, it wasn’t just playing out on WhatsApp, nor among parents. It was overflowing on Instagram, too. Think: a meme of Jennifer Aniston downing wine on Friends with the caption: ‘forever mood’, and screengrabs of Chardonnay-soaked Zoom calls.
Dr Abi Rose is a psychiatrist at the University of Liverpool, whose research focuses on the mechanisms behind people’s behaviour around alcohol. She confirms that the pandemic cultivated a unique pressure that positioned alcohol as an alluring coping mechanism. ‘We’ve experienced chronic levels of stress, and people are using alcohol to self-medicate,’ she says. This response is physiological; alcohol creates a relaxing effect by ramping up the activity of your brain’s dominant inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA, while dialling down its main excitatory one, glutamate; like putting on headphones and turning the volume down.
But it isn’t just physical, it’s psychological, too. ‘Pouring yourself a drink at the end of the day can feel like a psychological cue to being able to close your laptop and think, “This is my time,”’ says Dr Rose. What’s concerning about drinking to cope with Covid-related stress, she explains, is that some 14 months on, we’re still living through it. ‘Stress is normal in bursts, but coronavirus has gone on so long that we’re experiencing chronic levels of it. And what starts as a coping mechanism can easily slip into a daily coping strategy. After all, habits are formed by repetition.’
Like Denise, Hannah Rafter’s lockdown drinking began as a temporary coping strategy – but for boredom. ‘I started drinking G&Ts midweek simply as something to do,’ says the 26-year-old community manager from London. ‘I really thought it would be over in a month –
I didn’t have the mentality that this could last for a while.’
Back then, she was living with friends, and while alcohol had been a fixture in her life since university, it was on a strictly social basis; dinners with family and nights out with friends a few times a month. She’d even dabbled in mindful drinking. But in March 2020, her units went the other way, and as the months wore on, her tastes became more adventurous. ‘When I saw friends on Instagram doing things like wine tasting, it inspired me to be more experimental – creating fancier drinks with new, more interesting ingredients– all without realising that I even wanted to do something different,’ she explains, of what prompted her to swap her usual everyday gin and tonic for slightly more luxe Malfy Blood Orange Gin with Slimline Fever-Tree Tonic Water. When she moved out of her rented flat-share and bought her own place, she celebrated with an ice-cold flute of Lanson Le Rosé champagne.
Emily Austin is CEO of PR agency Emerge, which works with alcohol brands such as Babe, Chase and Nio. She believes that the transformation of living rooms into bars and restaurants repositioned alcohol as something akin to aspirational. ‘We’ve had to sit with ourselves and our spaces in a restrictive, repetitive way, which has driven people to upcycle their surroundings and routines, of which food – and drink – play a massive part,’ she says. Cue: the launch of bougie booze brands like Lockdown Liquor & Co and the cocktail delivery company Send a Negroni.
Alongside this rebranding of drinking was a rise in #spon content. Social media’s ability to sell to us has caught the attention of the alcohol industry in recent years, seduced by the rise of dedicated wine and cocktail influencers. And a spike in screen-time stats have made social media an even more attractive proposition for alcohol brands. ‘They’ve been allocating more money to influencer marketing – a cheap tool compared to mediums like billboards – to make the most of increased social media use,’ Austin says.
Gleam Futures, the influencer marketing agency, found that internet usage during the pandemic soared by up to 60%. ‘Instagram in particular has proven to be fertile ground for reaching women by positioning alcohol as more of a lifestyle proposition,’ adds Austin, referring to the move by alcohol brands to work with influencers more synonymous with fashion, beauty and lifestyle. On closer inspection, an image of one influencer sitting in an on-trend balloon-sleeved burgundy dress at a marble table flanked by a bottle of Peroni is an #ad. As is another’s pretty-pink spread where bottles of Moët & Chandon blend into bouquets of roses.
Like to drink
Such content is undoubtably engaging, and we’re not above posting it here at WH. A pretty Sunday night image on our grid of a bath tray bearing a glass of wine garnered triple the likes of a similar image featuring no booze shared a week later. But is there any evidence to suggest that these kinds of posts – shared by influencers, brands and the friends of friends you follow – could have contributed to a blurry-eyed approach to drinking?
Emma Davies thinks so. The senior lecturer in psychology at Oxford Brookes University is researching pandemic drinking patterns. ‘Social media plays a big part in glamorising alcohol,’ she says, an effect that she believes has a direct impact on levels of consumption. She explains that when you see a cocktail placed on a coffee table next to a stack of books, or a glass of wine beside a bath filled with bubbles, it sends a visual message to your brain: drinking is aspirational. ‘Your behaviour is driven by two cognitive systems – one is slow and requires effort, and the other is super-fast and does things automatically. The latter relies on cues in the environment in order to know what to do. So when you see alcohol-related cues over and over – like memes shared on WhatsApp or posts on Instagram – your intention to cut back your units may be overridden, and you’re influenced to drink.’
While not directly relating to alcohol, a 2018 study* found that social media users mimic the behaviour of others online – a problem if your feed is an echo chamber of #5pm mimosas. ‘Humans look to others to understand the social norms for a particular context and use this to guide their behaviours,’ says Davies. ‘So if you see a proliferation of other people drinking at home – from celebrities to friends – you’re more likely to decide that this is something that everyone is doing and, therefore, it must be okay.’
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with posting a photo of a glass of wine to your Instagram feed, whether you’ve been paid to do so or otherwise; nor forwarding a meme that tickled you. But for Holly Whitaker, author of Quit Like A Woman and founder of digital sobriety programme Tempest, alcohol-soaked content on social media is just another influence to be mindful of. ‘Drinking is celebrated in Western culture at every turn – from slogan T-shirts about rosé to dinner parties where it’s seen as a non-negotiable,’ she says. ‘As such, we’re constantly, inadvertently, promoting alcohol to each other. That messaging hasn’t gone away during the pandemic; it’s intensified.’
Cultivating awareness of these cultural influences can help your drinking habits be less swayed by them. But the most important thing you can do is get clear-eyed about the effect alcohol has on your health. Yes, even this summer. ‘You might consider yourself to be health-conscious, but that can be undermined if you’re not mindful about the effects of alcohol,’ says Professor David Nutt, neuropsychopharmacologist and author of Drink? The New Science Of Alcohol And Your Health. In it, he warns that if women continue to booze
at current rates, it’ll be the leading cause of death under 50, be that by poisoning the liver, weakening the heart, triggering brain damage or increasing your risk of cancer.
As for your quality of life in the meantime? Research has found that alcohol makes it harder to orgasm during sex; sabotages the hunger hormone ghrelin’s efforts to help you eat intuitively; affects fertility and exacerbates menopause symptoms like hot flushes. That’s before you consider the impact of alcohol on your mind; while sipping on booze most days may provide an initial buzz, thanks to the feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine, it’ll drive down mood once they fade – not just hangxiety, but a lingering shift that can hamper your long-term happiness.
It makes for a compelling case for taking a more intentional approach to drinking – even as pubs, wine bars and cocktail joints reopen their doors. For Whitaker, doing so begins with understanding your relationship with alcohol; strategies like committing to a sober stretch, tracking your drinks using an app and journalling can all help.
For Hannah, briefly moving in with her parents became an opportunity to break the habit and go teetotal, after which she reintroduced alcohol more mindfully. Key to doing so was shaking up her socials. ‘I’m now following people who are discussing drinking less,’ she explains, of digital communities – of which Club SÖDA and Sober Girl Society are examples. ‘Engaging with their content helps reinforce my decision to cut down.’
For Denise, the reintroduction of the school run put a stop to afternoon G&Ts, and she’s since put some boundaries in place. ‘I’m now trying to limit my drinking to weekends – it helps that, as the stress from homeschooling has gone, I’m no longer feeling the daily urge,’ she explains, while acknowledging that she can’t wait to treat herself to a classic negroni with Silent Pool gin when she reunites with friends. Cheers to that.
How not to be influenced
Cues to drink are everywhere, from pithy pub signs to the arrival of wedding season. Here, the experts share how you can start drinking on your own terms...
There’s evidence that monitoring alcohol consumption can reduce your intake. ‘Keep an honest diary of how much you’re drinking,’ advises Dr Rose. The Drinks Meter app lets you compare your consumption with that of others. Making a note of your triggers can help, too. If stress is one, look for other ways of managing it. That could be a candlelit bath, doing a workout or watching something funny.
As impressive as your home bar is, it won’t do your efforts to cut down any favours. ‘Having alcohol in your home can be a source of temptation,’ confirms Elaine Hindal, CEO of charity DrinkAware. Donate your supplies to friends or put them in a cupboard out of sight. Then stock up on alternatives – of which you’re now spoilt for choice. Our picks? Swap gin for Seedlip, rosé for Eisberg, Aperol spritz for Highball and prosecco for Belle & Co.
Do you really want to get drunk on a Friday night? Why does a dinner party always have to involve wine? Becoming aware of the cultural cues to drink will help you begin to challenge them. ‘When I chose not to consent – to somebody else’s idea of how I should be – I felt
free,’ adds Whitaker.
For both men and women, the official advice is not to drink more than 14 units a week, spread evenly over seven days. That’s about six medium glasses of wine. ‘If you’re really worried about your drinking, contact your GP,’ advises Dr Rose. But remember, if you’re drinking heavily and regularly, it can be dangerous to go cold turkey – talk to a professional first.
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