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Many people report they’ve been drinking more often to cope with stress from the COVID-19 pandemic. Basak Gurbuz Derman/Getty Images
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has been a source of stress and anxiety for many people in the United States, especially women.
  • Studies indicate that women were more likely than men to report stress-related increases in alcohol use during the pandemic.
  • Heavy alcohol use could lead to severe health consequences for women.
  • Knowing the signs of alcohol misuse can help you realize if you need help.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a source of stress and anxiety for many people in the United States. Physical distancing has left us lonely and isolated when we’re feeling worried about our health, our economic welfare, and the political state of our nation.

Dr. Iram Kazimi, a specialist in psychiatry at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, said that while no one is immune to pandemic stress, research shows that women and historically marginalized groups have been especially hard hit.

In particular, women who work from home are under greater stress because they often shoulder childcare responsibilities and work.

This added stress may be leading to increased alcohol use for some.

In fact, several studies have found that women were more likely to report increases in stress-related drinking during the pandemic.

“Lockdowns can be stressful for people,” said Kenneth E. Leonard, PhD, director of the Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions at the University at Buffalo and a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University at Buffalo.

“Stress is one of the clear predictors of heavy drinking and can be a particular problem for people who rely on alcohol to cope with stress,” he said.

Leonard said that at the extreme level of alcohol misuse, alcohol poisoning is a risk. Also, car accidents and other types of accidents are important health risks, too.

Over the longer term, liver diseases like liver cirrhosis can become a concern.

Also, drinking alcohol can increase the risk of many types of cancer, including breast cancer.

In addition, Leonard said research indicates that women will incur these risks at a lower intake level over a shorter time than men.

Given the dangers that heavy alcohol consumption can present, it’s important to recognize when you might have a drinking problem.

Leonard noted the stigma surrounding alcohol and use disorders, which applies to both women and men. This stigma can impair a person’s ability to assess their own drinking and willingness to get help.

“People can sometimes become defensive about this,” he said, “but important people in your life can sometimes see a problem developing before you do.”

Leonard said some of the early signs of a problem are drinking more than you had planned or drinking at times when you had not planned to drink.

Drinking in risky situations can also be a sign, he noted.

Also, sometimes, an early sign is someone close mentioning being concerned about your drinking.

A good first step in getting a handle on your drinking is being aware of how much you drink, Leonard said.

Heavy drinking is having more than 14 drinks a week, or more than 4 in 1 day for men, he explained. For women, drinking more than seven drinks in a week or three in one day is considered heavy.

Leonard suggests monitoring your drinking to stay within these limits. Also, be aware of what “one drink” is, he said.

One drink is equal to 12 ounces of a typical beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor.

The typical beer is about 5 percent alcohol, but some beers can have almost twice this amount.

Leonard noted that if you’re trying to regulate the amount of alcohol you’re drinking, it’s important to know that consuming a couple of regular beers may not seem like much, but drinking two higher alcohol beers can affect you differently.

Leonard said that if your attempts to moderate your alcohol use have not successful, you may want to consider a more formal self-help program, such as Guided Self-Change.

Also, there are other therapeutic options such as motivational interviewing or cognitive behavioral therapy, which can address alcohol misuse.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website provides treatment resources.

Rather than drinking to cope with stress and anxiety, it can be helpful to find safer ways of managing your feelings.

Kazimi suggests that self-care and connectedness are key components in coping with pandemic stress.

“Make sure you are exercising, getting good sleep, and getting good nutrition,” said Kazimi.

She also suggests limiting screen time and information overload, especially when it’s something that you can’t do anything about.

Finally, find ways to connect with loved ones and be of service to others.

“Having a sense of purpose is enormous — it allows people to cope with a lot of adversity,” she said.