The last year and half has undeniably been a time of change. As a society, we’ve adjusted the way we work and educate (remotely, through Zoom and Teams and Meets), the way we dress and groom ourselves (in more sweats and with barer faces), the way we spend our leisure time (with puzzles, not parties). And for many women, all of that change has led to a hell of a lot more drinking.
“Every single night, starting at 5 p.m. on the dot,” said Chicagoan Jane Kempler, 42, of her pandemic alcohol use. “I drank to help calm my nerves and because I deserved to escape my definition of hell. While my husband was working downstairs, I was a Montessori school teacher to a 3-year-old, a mother to that 3-year-old and an 18-month-old, a short-order chef, a cleaning woman, a hair stylist, a grocery sanitizer . . . wine was my savior.”
She wasn’t alone. According to a recent study, women’s heavy drinking days increased by 41 percent between the spring of 2019 and spring 2020. Additional research has shown that stress related to the pandemic was associated with greater quantity of alcohol consumption for women, but not men.
“Women tend to drink to cope with stress more than men,” said Dr. George Koob, the director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
“Women often drink to dull negative emotional states, basically to try to mitigate the effects of stress, and when it comes down to it, females in society have more cumulative stress than men,” said Dr. Koob.
Never has this been more true than during the time of COVID-19, when women have been affected disproportionately by job losses and the pandemic's effect on schooling and child care. With so many negative factors weighing us down, we all deserved a nice glass (or three) of sauvignon blanc for surviving another day, right?
“A bottle of cabernet with dinner or a margarita on the porch on a sunny day have been compensations for all that has been lost. A treat. A temporary consolation,” said Dr. Amy MacDonald, a clinical psychologist based in Illinois, through email. “But too much of a good thing can become an issue, and women who are drinking to cope, rather than to have fun, tend to have worse outcomes as alcohol use increases anxiety and depression over time. It may produce momentary reprieves from unpleasant feelings, but those mood states tend to rebound and come crashing back manifold.”
“The best way to become someone with a drinking problem is to drink only to relieve stress and anxiety,” agreed Dr. John Mendelson, the founder and chief medical officer of Ria Health, an at-home alcohol treatment program. “And the consequence point for many women who have greatly increased their alcohol consumption will likely be years down the road.”
Almost 18 months into the pandemic, behaviors that started as quick fixes have, in many cases, been habitualized, leading to real repercussions. “The truth is that alcohol impacts all the key pillars of health and wellness: your hydration, your calorie intake, how well you can perform at the office and the gym, your anxiety levels, your sleep,” said Ian Andersen, the co-founder of Cutback Coach, an app designed to “improve drinking habits” in a nonjudgmental, discreet way. “So it’s pretty uncontroversial to say that cutting back is healthy.”
This is especially true for women, said Dr. Koob, whose bodies react differently to alcohol, as a factor of both weight and water distribution, and to anxiety, stress, and pain in general. (“We’ve only begun to study the neurobiological differences between men and women,” he said.)
While so many women have been sold into a culture of wine moms, bottomless mimosa brunches, and innocuous, fruity hard seltzers, the bill that eventually comes due might be much higher than we realize.
“We just don’t manage alcohol as well as men do,” said Dr. MacDonald. “One — ONE — drink per day is considered moderate drinking for women. More than seven drinks per week is considered heavy or high-risk drinking. It’s hard on us, and we develop diseases like cancer and heart disease and liver problems from what culturally seems like actually very little alcohol.”
While it might be easy to ignore alcohol’s long-term effects, its short-term ones are harder to overlook. “If you’re not feeling so good the next day, your body is trying to tell you something,” said Dr. Koob. “And when you start drinking more to fix a problem that drinking has caused, you’re crossing a line.”
If your relationship with alcohol has become destructive, a new school of problem-drinking programs — less all-or-nothing and more geared to the sober curious — like Moderation Management and Ria Health have begun redefining what “help” looks like.
It can be as easy as downloading an app. Cutback Coach focuses on mindfulness to change drinking habits, through a program conducted mostly through text message. Co-founder Andersen said their average user decreases their alcohol consumption 30 percent in 30 days. Almost 75 percent of the app’s users are women.
Mindfulness can be self-practiced as well, said Dr. MacDonald. “Try sitting down with a LaCroix or a cup of tea rather than mindlessly pouring a glass of wine. Being intentional — even saying to yourself, 'I’m pouring a drink now. Is this really what I want?' — can help slow drinking that is simply a bad habit.”