Excessive alcohol use is a common response to coping with stress. Alcohol use increased following the September 11th terrorist attacks and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The COVID-19 pandemic is following this same path. However, this pandemic is different in its scope and duration. COVID-19 is associated with both negative health and economic impacts, as well as grief, loss, and prolonged stress and uncertainty.
The emotional impact of COVID-19 on women
According to the U.S. National Pandemic Emotional Impact Report, compared to men, women reported higher rates of pandemic-related changes in productivity, sleep, mood, health-related worries, and frustrations with not being able to do enjoyable activities. Women with children under age 18 had higher rates of clinically significant anxiety, compared to men with children under age 18 and to women with no minor children. Women are more likely to shoulder the burden of household tasks, caregiving, and child-rearing than men. Stay-at-home orders to stop transmission of COVID-19 led to decreased childcare support and the additional burden of remote schooling.
Rising rates of alcohol use in women
You only need to glance at social media to get the message that there is a “cure” for pandemic-related stress: alcohol. Social media sites are rife with memes of moms drinking to relieve their stress. And alcohol is now easier than ever to obtain through delivery sites and apps. Therefore, it is not surprising that we are seeing a disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women’s alcohol use. Rates of alcohol use, heavy drinking (defined as four or more drinks on one occasion), and related disorders in women were rising even before the pandemic. Between 2001–02 and 2012–13, there was a 16% increase in the proportion of women who drink alcohol, a 58% increase in women’s heavy drinking (versus 16% in men), and an 84% increase in women’s one-year prevalence of an alcohol use disorder (versus 35% in men).
This is in part due to changing social norms around female alcohol consumption and the alcohol industry’s targeted marketing to women. The pandemic has further increased rates of alcohol use in women. According to a RAND Corporation study, during the pandemic women have increased their heavy drinking days by 41% compared to before the pandemic. Additional research has shown that the psychological stress related to COVID-19 was associated with greater drinking for women, but not men.
Medical and psychiatric consequences of alcohol use
Physical health is adversely impacted by heavy drinking, including risks for hypertension, cancer, stroke, liver disease, and alcohol-impaired accidents. Because women absorb and metabolize alcohol differently than men, they are more susceptible to the negative physical consequences of alcohol, including liver disease, heart disease, and cognitive impairment. It is estimated that one-third of breast cancer cases could be prevented if women did not drink alcohol, were physically active, and maintained healthy weight.
Alcohol use can negatively affect mental health. Women have twice the risk of men for depression and anxiety, and heavy alcohol use exacerbates depression, anxiety, and insomnia — symptoms experienced by many people 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 use, and decreased escape options for women living with an abusive partner.
Practical tips and resources for dealing with pandemic-related stress
It is important for women to find healthy coping strategies for the associated stress and anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prioritizing healthy eating, sleep, and exercise can help boost your physical and mental health. Although physical distancing is necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, people should avoid socially isolating themselves from friends, family, and loved ones. Maintain a daily routine to avoid boredom, as boredom can often lead to alcohol use.
How to make changes in your alcohol use
Small changes in your alcohol use can be helpful:
- Examine your drinking behavior in light of your mental and physical health risks, including a personal or family history of alcohol problems, and use of any medications that are contraindicated with alcohol.
- Stay within the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) current guidelines for alcohol consumption: no more than one standard drink per day, and no more than seven in one week for women (a standard drink is 5 ounces of wine; 1.5 ounces of spirits; 12 ounces of beer).
- Make use of resources such as the NIAAA and CDC
- Consider alcohol intake and possible pregnancy. There is no safe limit of alcohol use while pregnant.
- Seek help from your health care provider about the safest way to cut back on alcohol use.
- People currently in recovery from alcohol use disorder, or those who need help, may benefit from telehealth and online support group meetings. The NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator website provides information about telehealth and online support group meeting options.