Excessive alcohol consumption is a common response to stress management. Alcohol consumption increased after the September 11th terrorist attacks and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The COVID-19 pandemic is following the same path. However, this pandemic differs in scope and duration. COVID-19 has been linked to negative health and economic impacts as well as grief, loss, and ongoing stress and insecurity.
The Emotional Impact of COVID-19 on Women
According to the US National Pandemic Emotional Impact Report, women reported a higher rate of pandemic-related changes in productivity, sleep, mood, health concerns, and frustrations from being unable to engage in fun activities, compared to men. Women with children under 18 years of age had higher rates of clinically significant anxiety when compared to men with children under 18 years of age and women without underage children. Women are more likely than men to carry the burden of household chores, care and child rearing. The order to stay at home to stop the transmission of COVID-19 resulted in less childcare support and the added burden of distance learning.
Rising alcohol consumption rates among women
All you have to do is take a look on social media to hear the news that there is a “cure” for pandemic stress: alcohol. There are a lot of memes on social media of mothers drinking to relieve stress. And alcohol is now easier than ever to get through delivery sites and apps. It is therefore not surprising that the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on women’s alcohol consumption. The rate of alcohol use, heavy drinking (defined as four or more drinks on one occasion) and related disorders among women was rising even before the pandemic. Between 2001–02 and 2012–13, the proportion of women who drink alcohol increased by 16%, the proportion of women who drink heavily by 58% (compared with 16% for men) and the proportion of women increased by one year 84% prevalence of alcohol use disorder (versus 35% for men).
This is partly due to changing social norms regarding alcohol consumption by women and the targeted marketing of the alcohol industry to women. The pandemic has further increased alcohol consumption among women. According to a study by RAND Corporation, women during the pandemic increased their days of heavy drinking by 41% compared to before the pandemic. Additional research showed that the psychological stress associated with COVID-19 in women, but not men, was linked to higher alcohol consumption.
Medical and psychiatric consequences of alcohol use
Physical health is adversely affected by heavy drinking, including the risk of high blood pressure, cancer, stroke, liver disease, and alcohol-related accidents. Because women ingest and metabolize alcohol differently than men, they are more susceptible to the negative physical effects of alcohol, including liver disease, heart disease, and cognitive impairment. It is estimated that a third of breast cancer cases could be prevented if women did not drink alcohol, were physically active, and maintained a healthy weight.
Alcohol consumption can have negative effects on mental health. Women are at double the risk of depression and anxiety in men, and heavy drinking makes depression, anxiety, and insomnia worse – symptoms that many people experience during this pandemic. Heavy alcohol use contributes to intimate partner violence, and the COVID-19 pandemic has created a dangerous situation of high stress, increased alcohol consumption, and reduced escape opportunities for women living with an abusive partner.
Practical tips and resources for dealing with pandemic stress
It is important for women to find healthy strategies to cope with the stress and fear of the COVID-19 pandemic that comes with it. Prioritizing healthy eating, sleep, and exercise can help improve your physical and mental health. Although physical distancing is necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, people should avoid isolating themselves socially from friends, family, and loved ones. Stick to a daily routine to avoid boredom, as boredom can often lead to alcohol consumption.
How to Change Your Alcohol Consumption
Small changes in your alcohol consumption can help:
- Assess your drinking habits for your mental and physical health risks, including a personal or family history of alcohol problems, and use any medication that is contraindicated with alcohol.
- Stay within the current guidelines of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) for alcohol consumption: No more than one standard drink per day and no more than seven in a week for women (a standard drink is 5 ounces of wine; 1.5 ounces of Spirits; 12 ounces of beer).
- Use resources like NIAAA and CDC
- Take into account alcohol consumption and possible pregnancy. There is no safe limit to alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
- Contact your doctor to find out the safest way to reduce alcohol consumption.
- Individuals currently recovering from an alcohol use disorder, or those in need of assistance, can benefit from telemedicine and online support group meetings. The NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator website provides information on telemedicine and online support group meeting options.