That trend is especially alarming because previous research suggests that people who drink to cope — as opposed to doing so for pleasure — have a higher risk of developing an alcohol-use disorder, which is the inability to stop or control drinking even when it causes harm. Alcohol can be calming in the short term: It slows activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain that readies the body's "fight or flight" response to real or imagined stress by increasing heart rate and blood pressure and amplifying our awareness of threatening stimuli. But over time, alcohol's dampening effect on the amygdala decreases, while the region itself becomes "hyperactive in between bouts of drinking," according to Aaron White, a senior scientific adviser at the N.I.A.A.A. Achieving the same level of relief requires drinking more, and more often.
There are already indications that groups feeling the most pandemic-related stress are seeing greater increases in alcohol consumption. A survey of 12,000 physicians, for instance, found that more than 40 percent were experiencing burnout, very likely amplified by the pandemic, and of those, more than a quarter were drinking to deal with it. And though pre-pandemic research showed that parents were less likely than people without children to engage in risky levels of alcohol consumption, parents appear to be among those drinking more now — especially if their children are engaged in remote schooling.