Even though March was deemed women’s month, with the startling statistics regarding women and alcohol and other substances, every month must be a focus on women’s health.

Over the past two and a half years we have all experienced how the pandemic, natural disasters, and political unrest have created a world fraught with substance abuse problems, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. The statistics are staggering. I, along with my fellow professionals, have seen a rise in the number of calls received from people that are gravely concerned about the women in their lives. Young girls, teenagers, college students, moms, and working women are struggling to keep a presence or semblance of being together during their day-to-day lives. There are also many older adult women who have experienced loss: loss of a job, loss of a partner, loss of a home, to name a few.

During the pandemic, there has been a startling 41% increase in women’s drinking. Women suddenly found themselves not only juggling work and home, now there was zoom school, which meant needing functional knowledge on many subjects, like math, literature, and science, that they hadn’t thought about in years. Women, many of whom are great decision-makers, worried about how to do the simplest of tasks such as grocery store shopping. Simple decisions became complicated, from trying to figure out what to do with the kids to keeping on top of the job to making dinner in a world that was scary and isolating.

Stress drives much of the alcohol usage, as well as an increase in media messages that tell women it’s cool to drink, show women drinking and have such memes as “my kids whine, so I wine!”.

Alcohol is now easier than ever to get thru delivery sites and apps. Therefore, it’s not surprising that we are seeing a disproportionate effect in the pandemic on women’s drinking. Rates of alcohol use, heavy drinking defined as 4 or more drinks at one sitting, were rising even before the pandemic. According to JAMA starting as early as 2012 and on there was a 58% increase in women’s drinking compared to a 16% increase in men and an 84% increase in woman’s one-year prevalence of an alcohol use disorder as opposed to a 34% increase in men. One commercial depicted a mother opening a secret mini-fridge in the bathroom to sip juice and champagne.

As my colleague and contemporary Judy Salinger, a longtime San Diegan and outpatient treatment owner of Lasting Recovery, recently wrote: mommy drinking is no laughing matter.

You’ve seen it on TV, in movies, and posted across social media – images of moms drinking to deal with the everyday stresses of modern-day motherhood. Most often, “mommy drinking culture” is presented as a light-hearted way to poke fun at how hard it is to be a mother – think movies like “Bad Moms” and wine glasses engraved with the words “Mommy Juice”.

But many experts believe that normalizing the use of a mind-altering substance as a coping mechanism does more harm than good.

A Flawed Coping Method

Unfortunately, women tend to experience more cumulative stress in their daily lives, which can motivate alcohol or other substance use and place them on a slippery slope.” ~ Dr. George F. Koob, Ph.D., Director, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Stress levels are at an all-time high – the COVID-19 pandemic, the isolation caused by social distancing, economic uncertainty, and other factors have created a “perfect storm” that has impacted the mental health of millions of Americans. According to the American Psychological Association:

  • 67% of adults feel “overwhelmed”
  • 44% have experienced more-frequent bouts of sadness and depression.
  • 39% struggle with increased anger.

Mothers with young children are particularly at risk of higher stress levels. Besides all of the above, they also have to deal with the lack of postpartum care, inadequate support for working mothers, daycare costs, the need to juggle multiple schedules, and the pressure to handle everything with a smile on their faces. The mental load of motherhood can be exhausting.

But relying on alcohol or substances to alleviate that stress is ultimately self-defeating. Not only does drinking not address the issues causing the stress, but it can also create new problems. Chief among these is an increased risk of alcohol addiction.

Directly Affecting the Brain

using substances to cope, or feel less bad, can become a trap due to changes in the brain with repeated use. That is, the amount of relief a person gets from the substance decreases with each use, and the amount of extra misery a person feels after each use increases, drawing them back to the drug and perpetuating the cycle.”

It is important to note that there is an established biological link between stress and alcoholism. In fact, a 2017 study, published in Neuron, found that stress actually recalibrates the brain to incentivize greater alcohol consumption. This matters because every drink a person takes triggers behavioral and memory changes within the brain that promote even more drinking. Alcohol affects the brain so profoundly that from our very first exposure, we are motivated to drink again.

No Laughing Matter

Oftentimes ‘mommy drinking culture’ gets viewed as something funny or as a way to calm down after a long day of mom duties and kids.”

Unfortunately, this can lead to a lack of awareness of how this can easily turn into a daily habit and possible addiction,” 

Alcohol Use Disorder is an insidious and progressive disease. What starts out as an occasional means to relax can easily become a habit, then a crutch, then finally, an irresistible compulsion.

Current statistics

1. Excessive alcohol use is associated with more than 2700 deaths among women and girls each year.
2. Approximately 13 percent of adult women report binge drinking on average 4 times a month.
3. About 18 percent of women of childbearing age (18-44 ) report binge drinking.
4. In 2019 about 32% of female high school students consumed alcohol compared with 26 percent of males.

Why Do Women Drink?

  • Teenage girls drink to fit in, to have fun, and to relieve stress, Teens are more susceptible to peer pressure and early use of alcohol can increase the risk of alcohol use disorder.
  • Relational status can affect a women’s drinking. Women who have never been married, are separated, divorced, or live with a domestic partner are more likely to drink than married women. Women who have familial responsibilities including caring not only for children but also caring for their parents (eldercare) experience more stress.
  • Women who have difficulty maintaining close personal relationships generally drink. Married women who have a partner who drinks heavily are more likely to drink more than other women who drink alone.
  • Women who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and women who experience unwanted sexual encounters (Date rape) are more likely to be problem drinkers.
  • A family history of alcohol problems can be a risk factor
  • Mental health problems, anxiety, depression, stress can make a woman more likely to drink as a way of self-medicating
  • Today’s modern woman stays single longer, focuses on their careers and socialization often revolves around food and drink and many spend more time with friends or co-workers which can lead to a higher likelihood of drinking.

Signs of Alcoholism in women

  • Drinking more or longer than planned. Problem drinkers often set limits on how much alcohol they plan to consume or how long they plan to drink, yet with alcoholism that is impossible. One always violates their stance.
  • Inability to cut down despite the desire to do so.
  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from the effects of alcohol. This takes precedence over all other facets of life. 
  • The use of alcohol takes precedence over all other aspects of one’s life.
  • Alcohol is both physiologically and emotionally addictive, hence strong cravings appear. Women feel the “need” to drink.
  • Missing work, school, neglecting home responsibilities, childcare, etc. as a result of drinking. Starting off the day with a drink.
  • Alcohol impairs one’s judgment and coordination.
  • Continuing to drink despite recurring negative social consequences (passing out, blacking out holding the baby, not showing up for work on time, driving under the influence to pick up the kids, going grocery shopping, engaging in risky behaviors.
  • Experiencing withdrawal systems when one tries to stop drinking.

Alcohol Use in Women is Associated with other Diseases Injuries and harm

  • Liver Disease – The risk of cirrhosis of the liver is higher for women than for men.
  • Brain disease – Cognitive decline and shrinkage of the brain increases faster for women than men.
  • Breast Cancer – Women who drink have a higher chance of developing breast cancer if they drink heavily and regularly. JAMA said that women who consume anywhere from 2-5 drinks on a daily basis are 41% more likely to develop breast cancer and it is estimated that 1/3 of all breast cancers could be eliminated if women drank less.
  • Sexual Violence – Excessive drinking especially binge drinking places women at higher risk for sexual violence.
  • Pregnancy – There is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy. Excessive alcohol use can increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, and sudden infant death syndrome. During pregnancy, drinking alcohol increases the risk of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Help is Available

If you are worried about a loved one, help is available. Contact me today to discuss the best options for your family and together, we’ll find a healing solution.

Podcast: Next Question With Katie Couric

Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Katie Couric and Elizabeth Vargas about women and addiction. Both women are forces to be reckoned with and tackle this pressing issue with grace, compassion, and knowledge. If you have not read their biographies, they are a must. And do tell Katie and Elizabeth you would like to hear more podcasts about addiction.

Going There – Katie Couric 

Between Breaths – A Memoir of Panic and Addiction – Elizabeth Vargas

Read Part 2