Drinking More Because of the Insane News Cycle? You're Not Alone
"Headline distress disorder" is real—and it's making many of us self-prescribe alcohol.
On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.
On a weekend this August, writer Danielle Guercio had a full day of work ahead of her when news broke that a car drove through a group of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The 30-year-old, based in New York City, found it hard to focus, and instead fixed herself a drink to cope.
“I was like, OK, I’m going to start drinking at 2 PM even though I haven't eaten a thing,” Guercio says. “Not eating food, but grabbing a bottle.”
This kind of behavior isn’t typical for her. Guercio said she had been making efforts to curb her drinking after she left the bar industry lifestyle that dominated her early twenties, cutting down to just one or two drinks a couple of times a week. But in late 2015, she began to backslide. Family parties became tense when some of Guercio’s loved ones voiced support of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. So she began drinking more at family functions.
“At family things, I would drink as if I was at a night out with friends,” she tells me.
After the election, things got worse. Self-perceived “anxiety and uselessness” started to affect her daily thought patterns, and drinking multiple glasses a night became a new habit to counteract the stress of current events and the difficulties she was having with work.
“[In] January, I was doing two to three glasses of wine a night for three months straight—which is totally not how I normally do things,” says Guercio. “It started to make me not feel bodily good.”
Politics and current events are major sources of anxiety for many in the United States: 57 percent of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, claim the current political climate is a major stressor, according to a poll conducted by the American Psychological Association this January. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed attribute their anxiety to Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.
Our constant connection to the news and the rapidfire way it’s shared ratchets up stress levels by inundating us with stories that provoke anger, fear, and frustration. “The headlines would cause anxiety for anybody,” he says.
And according to a survey run by online healthcare portal CareDash, Americans are turning that anxiety into bad habits: 41 percent of people aged 18 to 44 say they’ve turned to unhealthy behaviors like drinking alcohol, smoking, or eating poorly to cope with the election outcome.
Steven Stosny, Ph.D., a couples therapist in the Washington, DC area who partnered with CareDash for the survey, calls it “election stress disorder,” a phenomena where the emotional “toddler” brain takes over the impulse control “adult” brain, resulting in resentment toward those close to us. He coined the term for what he thought was a temporary thing, assuming that these feelings would abate soon after the election.
“I predicted that it would take until Christmas to wear off,” Stosny says, “so my prediction was totally wrong.”
He now calls it “headline stress disorder” as a byproduct of the 24-hour news cycle and social media. Our constant connection to the news and the rapidfire way it’s shared ratchets up stress levels by inundating us with stories that provoke anger, fear, and frustration. “The headlines would cause anxiety for anybody,” he says.
Everyone’s methods of dealing with these heightened emotions, of course, will vary, from exercise to meditation. But one easy way to take the edge off while scrolling through the bog of breaking and/or fake news is to indulge in an adult beverage or two or four.
Alcohol consumption trends have seen peaks during noteworthy moments throughout the presidential campaign and the months following. Drizly, an online beer, wine, and liquor delivery service, experienced an 86 percent increase in order volume on the night of the 2016 election compared to a typical Tuesday. Similarly, Minibar Delivery, another booze delivery app, tells MUNCHIES they saw a 64 percent higher-than-average Tuesday in November on Election Day (with the largest orders coming out of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Dallas, Houston, and Washington, DC). The average order totaled $72.55.
Americans sought out booze during political moments before the votes were cast, too. Sales on October 19, 2016—the date of the final presidential debate—were 29 percent higher than on a typical Thursday in October..
“Alcoholic beverages are a way to calm down the anxiety... Of course, too much of it turns out to be a depressant. [But] that first drink calms you down. Alcohol [consumption] increase goes with any popular tension."
On the bar and restaurant industry side, according to US Census Bureau Data collected by the National Restaurant Association, July 2017 was the third consecutive month restaurant sales rose after a sluggish beginning of the year. During August 2017, eating and drinking place sales totaled $56.6 billion, about $1 billion more than last September.
Additionally, the National Restaurant Association projects that bars and taverns alone will bring in $19.8 billion dollars in 2017, a 2.5 percent increase from $19.3 billion in 2016. (A total of $19.9 billion in bar and tavern sales was projected last year.)
“Alcoholic beverages are a way to calm down the anxiety,” Stosny says. “Of course, too much of it turns out to be a depressant. [But] that first drink calms you down. Alcohol [consumption] increase goes with any popular tension.”
Karen Borgesi, 48, was upset by the results of the election and with that, upped her consumption of both news and alcohol. The Washington Township, NJ resident was always tuned into political goings-on, but the extraordinary events that have followed the election have turned real life into a reality show she can’t tune out.
Borgesi said she finds herself staying up later than normal watching MSNBC—and she’s utilizing those extra minutes of awake time with another glass of wine. “Will it eventually cause a problem for me?” Borgesi, a bank compliance officer, asks. “I guess I should keep it in check. [I don’t do this] every night either, but it’s most nights.”
Curt Fox, too, watches more news coverage with a beer in hand in the wake of the election and the Trump administration. The 55-year-old is active on social media and claims to do a lot of “pissing people off” on those platforms. The confidence boost that comes with that extra beer paired with the content of the programs he’s watching provides the Marlton, NJ-based technical engineer with enough ammunition to draft some fiery Facebook statuses.
“If it’s a Friday night, I’ll sit there with Bill Maher on, who gets on my nerves as well, and I’m going to be probably more poignant and acerbic when I post things if I hadn’t had a drink or two,” Fox says.
On average, Borgesi says she’ll have between two and four drinks a day—and as far as American drinking habits go, she’s not alone. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, New York State Psychiatric Institute, and Columbia University conducted a study, published this summer in JAMA Psychiatry, that tracked Americans’ drinking habits from 2001–2002 and again in 2012–2013. The percentage of female drinkers who consumed at least four drinks per day (and men who drank at least five) increased by 30 percent over this period.
For New York City-based artist AnnaLiisa, who declined to give her last name, the post-election increase in alcohol consumption came from hitting the party circuit more frequently. She sees patronizing clubs that are actively policed to be safe spaces within her community of queer folks and people of color, such as Bushwick's Bossa Nova Civic Club, as a way of maintaining a semblance of control. In an election that resulted in a loss of security for so many, she says these inclusive gatherings are a way to regain a sense of humanity.
“For the most part, people needed parties,” AnnaLiisa, 30, says. “They needed places to go to let out frustrations and feel as though they owned something that was theirs. We needed to reclaim something.”
Though it would seem that many would imbibe alcohol to relinquish some sense of control, the political climate has inspired many to seek authority over something in their lives—the power to feel safe in a club, or the confidence to post a status on Facebook that you would’ve deleted otherwise.
Fox says he’s even become more empathetic, especially towards those who have been impacted by the decisions of the current administration, with another drink in his system. Which is maybe what the world needs a little more of right now.
“I don’t run from that. I like being able to say I can look at the situation from someone else's point of view,” Fox says. “For me to tear up about something, [it’s] after I’ve had a couple of drinks… even a beer or two is enough to get teared up about something. I become more emotionally in tune that way.”