COVID-19, Women, and Alcohol: Managing Pandemic Stress without Drinking

The COVID-19 pandemic is especially stressful for women. Research shows that the economic downturn tied to the pandemic has hit industries in which women tend to work—such as the hospitality industry—harder than those that tend to employ more men.

Women also report that they have increased the amount of time they spend on unpaid labor, such as caring for children or elderly relatives.

Women’s lives are more stressful than ever. And the pandemic has made it harder to engage in healthy ways to cope, such as going to the gym or meeting up with friends to catch up over coffee. As a result, many have turned to alcohol to cope with pandemic-related stress.

Last spring, as shutdowns went into place across the United States, online alcohol sales increased by more than 240 percent. In Australia, one group found that social media users were seeing an ad for alcohol products every 35 seconds, with many of them connecting alcohol to the pandemic.

That doesn’t even count the memes and viral videos about drinking as a way to cope. Increasing alcohol use can result in negative consequences, including health risks, for everyone.

Alcohol use is especially risky for women.

Science shows that if a woman and a man of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman’s blood alcohol content (BAC) will likely be higher. This is because women have less water in their bodies than men do, which is where alcohol is stored as it is processed.

There is no known amount of alcohol that should be considered safe for either men or women.

If you do not drink, you should continue to abstain. Women under the legal drinking age and women who may be or are pregnant should also abstain completely from alcohol.

For adult women who do drink alcohol periodically, it’s recommended that they have one drink, or less, on days when alcohol is used. Staying within the recommended limit may help reduce alcohol-associated risks and harm, including alcohol use disorder (AUD).

What is alcohol use disorder?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), AUD is “a chronic relapsing brain disorder characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”

This pattern is best characterized as alcohol use despite negative consequences.

This can happen to anyone, even if you think you are drinking within your limits or drinking “small” amounts of alcohol.

“Adverse consequences” can be regular hangovers after drinking, not feeling sharp at work, or snapping at your partner or kids while you drink—but repeating the same pattern.

What health risks does alcohol use pose for women?

Liver damage, such as cirrhosis, is a well-known risk of drinking. But alcohol use is linked to many health risks including, but not limited to: trauma, motor vehicle accidents, high blood pressure, heart failure and cancer.

Women who drink regularly increase their risk for breast cancer, heart disease, and even brain damage.

Additionally, certain medical conditions, tobacco use, and/or prescription medications increase the risks associated with any alcohol use.

And, if you’ve been diagnosed with a mood disorder like anxiety or depression, research shows that drinking alcohol may interfere with treatment—the opposite of the relaxation many people seek when they drink.

Learn more about the health risks of AUD from the NIAAA.

If you’ve started drinking more during the pandemic, how can you slow down?

If you are unsure if you can reduce your alcohol safely on your own, it is important to seek professional advice first.

Cutting back or ceasing alcohol use abruptly can result in serious consequences such as delirium and/or seizures.

By reaching out for professional support, you can make a plan to safely reduce consumption of—and ultimately abstain from—alcohol.

Women who are planning to become pregnant, may be pregnant, or who are currently pregnant should seek immediate professional support to avoid complications and serious effects of alcohol to the fetus.

Depending on your current alcohol use, your provider may suggest some small steps to improve your health.

Track your drinking

Logging your alcohol intake is the best way to understand how much you’re actually drinking.

You can use a printable tracker, or note how many drinks you’re having and how you feel when you have them in the Notes app of your phone.

Accurately measure “a drink”

Those gag gift wine glasses that hold a full bottle of wine are obviously not one drink, but restaurants and bars often serve alcohol in generous pours, which have skewed what we serve ourselves at home.

Here’s a chart of what a standard drink of wine, liquor, beer, or spirits looks like.

Understand what makes you want to drink

Many women have situations that trigger the urge to drink. Maybe it’s the kids fighting over dinner. Perhaps it’s a stressful day at work. At these times, it is important to work on healthy ways to cope with stressors.

Professional support can help you develop tools to reduce stress and cope utilizing healthy outlets.

Build your sober network

People who drink may find it helpful to develop what I call “sober networking,” which is a diverse, abstinence-based, social and support network.

In today’s world, this may include:

  • Facetiming a friend
  • An online meditation or yoga class
  • Spiritual or religious events
  • Joining a mutual help group, such as AA or Smart Recovery

Develop go-to sober activities

For many women who use alcohol, thinking about people, places, and things associated with alcohol and replacing those old connections with new ones may be helpful.

For example:

  • Take a bath—and dive into a good book instead of a glass of wine while soaking
  • Watch a new TV show with your partner while sipping tea rather than a cocktail

A new sober routine makes it easier to give up the old routine of reaching for alcohol.

Know when to ask for outside help

At South Shore Medical Center, we screen adult patients for signs of alcohol misuse, and have an office-based addiction treatment program for those who want support.

If you’re not a South Shore Medical Center patient, you can become one, or visit the Bridge Program at South Shore Hospital, which can provide support and resources to help you quit drinking.

Learn more about the Grayken Center for Treatment at South Shore Health