It’s been a stressful year. Kids were at home. Work went remote or away altogether as employers instituted cost-cutting furloughs or layoffs. And we were all living through a global health crisis that left so many sick and dying.
Women, in particular, continue to face significant challenges. When schools shut down, women were usually the ones left to juggle work and child care. And millions of women remain out of the workforce because of layoffs or school or child care closures. Many continue to deal with uncertainty about our family, our future and our health.
At a time when so many women have lost the usual supports that keep their lives afloat — child care, help from extended family and friends or a job that puts food on the table — it’s probably not a surprise that some are turning to alcohol in an attempt to cope. In a study released last fall, the Rand Corporation found that heavy drinking among women — four or more drinks within a couple of hours — had risen by 41% during COVID. Overall, alcohol consumption went up 14% among adults over age 30 when compared to the previous year.
“In our clinic alone, we’ve absolutely seen a rise,” said Heather Gallagher, addictions therapist with UNC Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program.
There are plenty of contributing factors for the increase in alcohol use and abuse, Gallagher said. With remote work, there’s a blurred line between our professional and personal lives, and people have easier access to alcohol at home than they did in the office. The stress of the last year or more is triggering plenty of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, which can lead to alcohol abuse. And so many people have been isolated.
Moderate drinking is no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men, according to both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse. But even that amount of alcohol use could not be healthy for people on some medications or with a family history that could predispose them to alcohol abuse. If you’re worried about your drinking, here’s what Gallagher recommends.
Ask yourself these questions
1. How often am I drinking? It it once a week or every night?
2. How much alcohol do I drink? Did I increase from a glass of wine pre-pandemic to a bottle or more each night?
3. How is alcohol or drinking affecting different areas of my life? Am I having consequences at work? Is that creating a financial hardship? Is it causing problems in relationships or my health?
“Alcohol use can exist on a spectrum,” Gallagher said. “It’s not you’re an alcoholic or you’re not.”
Assess the reasons
When Gallagher talks to people who are worried about their own level of drinking, she asks them to assess the underlying reasons why.
For example, are they trying to get rid of uncomfortable feelings or thoughts? And does the thought of cutting back, even a little, feel scary?
“That might be an indication of something,” she said. “It could be good to try cutting back or try not drinking for a few days just to see what that is like.”
If you’re worried about your level of drinking, cutting back on your own without help can be difficult. If you want to make a small change, team up with your partner or a friend, make a plan for how much you plan to cut back and be accountable to each other.
If that proves difficult or you feel you might need to quit all together, set up an appointment with your doctor or a therapist who can help you think more deeply about how much you’re drinking and what kind of support you need to be healthy, Gallagher said.
These can be tough calls to make, Gallagher acknowledges. “There’s such a stigma around alcohol use and mental health care,” she said. “I think we’re moving toward de-stigmatizing it, but we’re still not completely there as a society.”
But it’s an important step to take when you’re ready. (If you have been drinking heavily, it is important to quit drinking under the supervision of a doctor. Going cold turkey could lead to some serious health complications, including seizures.)
For people who aren’t quite ready for a one-on-one approach, Gallagher recommends sitting in on a Smart Recovery meeting, for example, to sort of test the waters.
Change your habits
Drinking can be very ritualized and habitual, Gallagher said. “It can be, ‘my internal clock goes off at 5 p.m., and that’s when I know I pour a glass of wine.'”
Now is the time to switch up your schedule. Make sure you’re outside taking a walk when it’s 5 p.m., so you can’t pour yourself a glass of wine. If you always stop at the grocery store for a case of beer on your way home from work, change your route. Take stock of your friends. If they’re simply drinking buddies, maybe it’s time to find some new friends.
“Change up what you do after work or who you’re hanging out with,” Gallagher said.
Be wary of wine mom culture
T-shirts, advertisements and plenty of other popular culture references play into the lore that moms can’t do what they do everyday without a glass of wine or three. From yoga classes and book clubs to catching up with college friends on Zoom, alcohol can play a central role in most of our social outlets too.
Don’t buy into these cultural and social pressures. And, said Gallagher, be ready for those events where alcohol is front and center. Bring a ginger ale, seltzer water or coffee, for example, to that next book club meeting. And, if you don’t want to answer questions about why you’re not drinking, Gallagher recommends, be ready with a story.
Maybe you’re on a new medication or you’re doing it for health reasons or you’re trying to shed those COVID-19 pounds. Once you head out to that event with your own drink, also be ready for an escape plan if needed. Let them know you have to leave by a specific time to “pick up a child” or ask a friend to call you at a specific time, giving you a reason to leave if necessary. White lies are totally appropriate in these situations.
But, Gallagher said, at the same time, remember that it’s unlikely anybody is going to be focused on your specific actions or even remember what you were drinking the next day. “Oftentimes, we’re more worried about ourselves than other people are,” she said. “By tomorrow, nobody is going to think about it.”
Help a loved one
If you’re worried about a friend or family member’s drinking, know that it’s not always productive to demand change from somebody when they aren’t quite ready.
“If they are open to it, talk with them about the consequences you’ve experienced by proxy or that they have seen,” Gallagher said. Maybe they have trouble holding a job, don’t have a great relationship with their kids or just seem in a bad mood all the time.
“A lot of times, there’s guilt and shame that have piled up so high that they don’t want to talk about it,” she said. Focus on being open and honest with them and uncovering ways you can help them get better.
Alcohol abuse is a brain disease. Remember that you or your loved one didn’t choose this for themselves.
“It can be so difficult and heart breaking to see someone you love go through the same thing over and over again despite the consequences,” Gallagher said. “Keep in mind that that person may have chosen this behavior initially, but it is a brain disease and, most of the time, they do not want to be engaging in this. There is an inability to control drinking now because there is this physical or emotional dependence.”
The good news for those who abuse alcohol is that there is hope. Therapy and medications, including some that can curb the desire to drink, all can help, Gallagher said.
“It’s not easy. It is challenging,” she said. “There are many lifestyle factors that go into it. There are many changes that need to be made. Oftentimes, there are mental health conditions that need to be worked on as well.”
But a team of providers, including doctors and therapists, can help to pinpoint the next steps and guide you toward better health.
“If you can get all of that … and really tackle things,” Gallagher said, “you’re going to be set up for success.”