December 15, 2021
2021 has been another stressful year in the midst of the pandemic, and now holiday stress is upon us as well. You are not alone if a glass of wine or a stiff drink of whiskey helps you unwind from your worries.
However, health experts warn that not having healthier ways to cope with stress can lead to excessive drinking, especially in women.
While drinking alcohol can help you forget all the stressors in your life for a little while, it can become a crutch for handling stressful events and can increase your risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.
Previous research has shown that stressed men are almost twice as likely to binge drink than women, but a new study suggests that stress is only a factor for men when they have already been drinking.
On the other hand, women consume more alcohol when stressed, whether or not they first start with an alcoholic or a non-alcoholic beverage.
In the study, men and women were randomly selected to either a stressful or non-stressful situation, then half were served alcohol and the other half three non-alcoholic drinks in a simulated bar setting. After that, all participants had access to an open bar for 90 minutes.
The findings, which are published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, included 105 women and 105 men.
While both the men and women exposed to stress during the study drank heavier than the other participants, among the stressed men, those who started with alcohol consumed more of it overall than those who started with non-alcoholic beverages.
The stressed women, however, drank more across the board, no matter if they started out with an alcoholic drink or not.
"The role of stress in impaired control over drinking is understudied, especially in women," said Julie Patock-Peckham, head of the Social Addictions Impulse Lab at Arizona State University.
Drinking alcohol causes the release of higher levels of cortisol, which plays a major role in the body's stress response. It can change how you perceive and respond to stress, leading to impaired control over drinking and excessive consumption.
Stress is known to impair control over drinking, so it is important to look closer at its role in problem drinking.
"That women just needed the stress but men needed the push of already having alcohol on board shows how important this type of research is," she said. "The outcomes from alcohol use are not the same for men and women, and we cannot keep using models that were developed in men to help women."
If heavy drinking becomes a frequent habit, it can have a significant impact on your physical and mental health with symptoms such as blackouts, mood swings, depression, chronic fatigue, Grand mal seizures, memory loss and liver disease, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
If you find that you are turning too often to the inside of a bottle for solutions to stress, establishing healthier coping strategies can help you ease your dependence on alcohol to get through tough times, experts say.
Earlier in the pandemic, Dr. Thea Gallagher, a Penn Medicine psychologist, told PhillyVoice that meditation, journaling and practicing gratitude can help you process your feelings. She also recommends using daily-to-do lists to stay on top of important tasks when you are feeling overwhelmed.
Mental health experts also recommend maintaining healthy routines including eating right and exercising. Self-care – which could simply be a walk outside every day or a bubble bath – as well as social support from friends and family, have also been proven to have a positive impact on mental health.