Some recent studies suggest that stress is changing our relationship with drinking due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Women, in particular, consume more alcohol to cope with these turbulent times.
For starters, a study published in this week JAMA Open Network examined nationally representative survey data for 825 people in 2019 and 2020. When comparing the survey results from two years, the researchers found that people’s self-reported alcohol consumption had increased in the last 30 days in 2020 compared to 2019.
Women stated that they drank 17% more alcohol in 2020 than in 2019 (this corresponds to drinking about 0.78 more days). They also reported 41% more days of heavy drinking (an increase of one day of heavy drinking for every fifth woman). Men did not show the same increase in alcohol consumption as women, but reported that they drank more and more frequently than women.
The big limitation with this study is that all of the data used by the researchers was self-reported, which means that people may not have accurately portrayed their drinking habits. Overall, however, these results suggest that our relationship with alcohol has changed significantly compared to last year.
And another recent study published online in Addictive behavior Last June shows that our feelings of perceived threat and general psychological distress from the pandemic can fuel these changes. For this study, 754 participants (50% women) completed an online survey in mid-April. The survey asked about their alcohol use over the past month, how anxious and stressed they were about the COVID-1
Their results showed that in men and women, the frequency of drinking reported by participants increased with increasing anxiety, stress, and distress. However, the results were far more pronounced in women than in men. For those who reported lower levels of COVID-19 stress, men generally reported drinking more alcohol than women, which is a longstanding pattern. As the stress level of women increased, however, they essentially “caught up” with the drinking level of men, explained the study’s authors.
Again, this study relies on self-reported data that may not fully reflect people’s drinking habits. However, the results here are in line with what we’ve seen in other studies and what we know about changing patterns of alcohol use in the United States
Unfortunately, this trend is not new. Although women generally drink less than men, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms that alcohol-related deaths among women and men have increased over the past decade. And previous research found that women are being admitted to the emergency room for alcohol-related problems at a rate that is significantly faster than that of men. Women already drank more and had more health effects from drinking than in the past, and the pandemic may have exacerbated this trend.
When does pandemic drinking become a problem? Technically, despite a pandemic, we should all (rude) stick to a moderate amount of alcohol, which, according to the CDC, means one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. Drinking more than this regularly could be a sign that you are getting into excessive drinking, which includes heavy drinking and binge drinking.
But really any increase in the amount or frequency you drink could be something to watch out for if you think it is related to COVID-19 stress, SELF previously explained. Even if you drink the same amount as before, if your drinking habits are different (like you drink earlier in the day) it could be a red flag too.
Drinking isn’t the healthiest or most effective coping mechanism out there (although it’s understandably alluring to many of us). The side effects of drinking, including hangover, can actually worsen feelings of depression and anxiety, which you may have been trying to relieve. And over-drinking has some pretty well-known negative health consequences. Hence, it is important to monitor both your drinking habits and the underlying reasons why you are reaching for a drink.
If you want to reduce your alcohol consumption, first pay attention to when, why and how much you drink. You can also make a plan of how much to drink during the week – and how to avoid over-drinking, SELF explained earlier. And if you feel like you’re leaning too heavily on alcohol right now, it might be worth developing other healthier coping mechanisms to help handle the current affairs, possibly with the help of a psychologist.