At-risk drinkers are an important group to reach, Suzuki said, because they make up a larger cohort than problem drinkers and are significantly easier to help.
“Clearly, at the population level, there are many, many individuals who exceed safe drinking limits, and they’re most responsive to minimal intervention,” Suzuki said. “People who are average drinkers don’t necessarily need to stop. They need to moderate their drinking and monitor it and stay below these thresholds.”
For those who need to cut back, effective tools include drink-tracking apps and conversations with a primary-care physician, which have been shown to reduce drinking behavior for six months to a year.
Scott Hadland, chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, said that-related shifts in alcohol consumption haven’t affected all pandemic ages uniformly. Stress coupled travel restrictions and lockdowns have encouraged older drinkers to reach for a glass at home, where fewer social controls exist to curb excessive drinking. The story has been different for younger drinkers. Studies have shown that teen and young-adult drinking declined during the pandemic, largely because teenage consumption usually happens at parties and in social contexts that COVID restrictions reduced. Similarly, for college-age drinkers, the closure of bars and dorms limited situations that might have led to excessive drinking.
As a neuroscientist who studies binge, alcohol-induced blackouts behavior, and alcohol’s effect on the adolescent brain, Silveri was already familiar with the many facets of drinking. Funded since 2004 by the NIAAA, she and her team have acquired hundreds of MRI images that illustrate alcohol-related changes in the brain. As she thought about her own life and behavior, she became inspired by the growing “sober curious” movement and events that required participants to give up alcohol for a specific period of time. In 2021, she gave “Dry January” a try.
“I think about alcohol every single day — occupational hazard — so I was like, ‘This is a good experiment for me, personally and professionally,'” Silveri said. “After Dry January, it was easy to make it through February, then March and April. I’m like, ‘What about a year?’ I felt both better and empowered. It also gave me a voice and an appreciation for folks who want to cut down or go alcohol-free, but who are also faced with alcohol with so many challenges — pressure by friends and family, limited options at social gatherings, and cues that are everywhere .”
Any approach to reducing or quitting drinking has to be personalized, she said, employing practices that might be right for one person but maybe not another. Exercise can help. Mindfulness, yoga, and exploring forgiveness — of oneself and others — are potentially powerful and emotional supports that are supported by empirical research. And don’t underestimate the value of adequate sleep.
For Silveri, the translational nature of her work, which allows her to see alcohol’s impact from the molecular level to brains and behaviors of individuals, has encouraged her to bring her knowledge to the clinic. So she’s headed back to graduate school to pursue a counseling degree.
“It’s been an interesting journey, as a researcher, community educator and advocate for destigmatizing mental illness, and as a mom,” Silveri said. “I manage a full-time neuroscience career and I’m a full-time graduate student getting a mental health counseling degree — and I have two children. I don’t have time for anything that will impact the energy. I need to keep all of the balls in the air.”
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