All of us have anxiety to some degree. For instance, it’s not uncommon and is considered normal to be anxious about a job interview or preparing for an exam. But if anxiety is creating feelings of distress, dread, or uneasiness every single time significant events happen, then it could be problematic, especially for women. From early adolescence to around age 50, women are almost twice as likely to develop anxiety than men. Feelings of excessive worry, panic attacks, or compulsive behavior may lead women with high anxiety to resort to drinking alcohol to “take the edge off.” In addition to anxiety, women with depression also may use alcohol to self-medicate.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the gap between men and women with drinking problems is shrinking. Between 2001 to 2013, women in the U.S. diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, more than doubled. NIAAA also stated a 2018 study showed a significant increase of alcohol-related ER visits by women between 2006 and 2014 and that women’s death rate from alcohol-related liver cirrhosis increased from 2000 to 2013. Besides liver disease, women abusing alcohol are more prone than men to have other alcohol-related health conditions including cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity, and cancer.
Anxiety’s role in women abusing alcohol
Dealing with chronic anxiety is tough. The increased tension, stress, and fears are enough to cause anyone to choose alcohol as a coping mechanism. Women may innocently find that when they drink, it calms them down helping them feel more at ease and confident. Then, in certain situations, they’ll use alcohol for the relief it provides from symptoms of anxiety. Why alcohol? Alcohol helps depress the central nervous system providing a sedative effect. As it works its way into the body, alcohol increases excitement and elation while at the same time, reduces inhibitions, particularly in social situations. For women, an alcoholic drink is just the answer they need providing a break from their anxiety.
The problem begins when women develop a tolerance or dependence on alcohol. Initially, alcohol helps pacify anxiety; now it seems to make it worse. Because their body has built up a tolerance to alcohol, instead of just one or two drinks to quiet anxiety, it takes three, four, or more glasses of wine, liquor, or beer to achieve that same feeling.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that for women, only one drink a day, if any, is advisable. A standard drink is equivalent to:
- One 12-ounce bottle of beer (5% alcohol)
- One 5-ounce glass of wine (12% alcohol)
- One 8-ounce bottle of malt liquor (7% alcohol)
- 5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor (40% alcohol)
Signs women are abusing alcohol
Women who are abusing alcohol may have the following symptoms:
- Drinking alcohol frequently or excessively
- Drinking for relief from anxiety or other emotions
- Inability to control drinking
- Needing more drinks throughout the day to keep going
- Drunk driving
- Drinking alone
- Losing job over alcohol abuse
- Combining alcohol with other substances
- Feeling shame, guilt, or remorse about drinking
A woman’s spouse, partner, children, parents, and friends will likely notice and likely be expressing their own concerns, frustrations, and distress over their loved one’s drinking. When it gets to this point, it’s time to seek treatment.
Dr. Samadi’s advice on treating alcohol abuse in women
Women who use alcohol as a crutch to cope with anxiety are always a bad mix. With the help of her family and friends, it’s important the woman seeks support from her doctor and mental health professional. Anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse will both need to be addressed. Depending on each woman’s situation, treatment may include ongoing individual therapy, group therapy, medication, in-patient treatment for substance abuse, or any combinations of these treatments.
The important thing is that any woman suffering from anxiety and alcohol abuse needs help. This can be beaten but it takes time, energy, and a willingness to make the necessary changes to regain their confidence, dignity, and life.