Stress is driving women to drink

While men and young people are drinking less alcohol, women in their 40s and 50s have upped their consumption.

Historically Australian men have drunk alcohol at up to double the rates of women, but while men’s alcohol consumption has decreased in recent years, women’s alcohol consumption is increasing and beginning to rival men’s consumption.

“In Australia it is women in their fifties and women in their forties who have had increased incidents of hazardous drinking,” clinical psychologist Dr Sally Hunt 
told NSWNMA delegates at professional day.

The findings come from a 2016 national drug survey, and the results “came as a shock” said Dr Hunt, particularly as the survey also found young people had reduced their hazardous drinking.

While health messages around lockout laws and responsible service of alcohol seem to be having an impact on men, hazardous drinking messages – no more than two alcohol units a day, and at least one or two alcohol-free days per week – don’t seem to be having the same impact on women.

The survey found that women in their fifties were increasing their rates of everyday habitual drinking, while for women in their forties, problematic drinking was more often associated with high-volume drinking on single occasions.

Dr Hunt says there are a variety of factors that can account for the rapidly closing drinking gap between men and women, including women’s increased responsibilities in paid work and delayed childbirth combined with greater responsibilities for older parents.

“Women have busy and stressful lives … for younger women and for new mothers, social media is a rife with messages around not just that women can drink, but that women in fact need to drink and that drinking is an appropriate way to deal with our problems when stressed out.”

Enjoying “me time” 
with a drink

Greater gender equality now means that women also have more spaces and occasions to drink alcohol, and they rightly feel that they shouldn’t have “fewer rights and freedoms” than men.

Drinking is a way of marking the end of a day or the end of a shift, Dr Hunt said.

“It’s my ‘me time’ … turning to a glass of wine while you prepare dinner, and another glass while you eat dinner, and another glass after the kids have gone to bed.”

“Alcohol in small doses and in moderation is certainly part of a full lifestyle. Where that becomes problematic is if it becomes the main way of coping with stress.”

The past fifty years of research has typically studied male drinking patterns and treatments for men, but in recent years Dr Hunt has tried to address this bias by researching women’s drinking patterns and motivations.

“My theory was that perhaps [women] didn’t have a drinking problem, they had a stress problem.” Dr Hunt’s hunch was proven right. Her research found that when asked to freely respond with reasons why they drink, most women said they used alcohol as a way to relax after the day’s responsibilities had ended.

Given the links between hazardous drinking and health effects such as breast cancer, liver disease and poor relationships, it’s important to find ways to help people make changes when drinking has become a problem.

Want to change 
your drinking habits?

Recognise that change is hard

Knowing that drinking is harmful is not enough. Most people know the risks associated with drinking, but that doesn’t mean they will change their habits.

People are often in two minds

We want to feel good in the morning by not having a drink, but at the same time we want to have a drink tonight as well. “Harnessing that ambivalence is how we can help people to start to look at their drinking and make a choice for health.”

People are more persuaded by what 
they hear themselves say than by 
what others say

“The trick is to lead people to their own good reasons 
for change. I’m not the expert in everybody’s lives, but 
I can help to hold up a mirror and help them to consider 
it for themselves.”

Measure your alcohol use for a week without making any changes to it

Collect some data, and rather than looking at how much you drink, ask yourself: “What situations or triggers seem to be associated with drinking? Am I drinking to cope with a negative emotion? Am I drinking because of stress or am I drinking because it is just something that I just really enjoy?”

Swap alcohol for another activity

“If you want to start to make some changes, then the easy thing to try is swapping alcohol for another stress reliever and see what happens,” suggests Dr Hunt.

If our default setting is to pour a glass of wine at 7 pm, go for a walk around the block or ring a friend for a chat at 7pm instead. “Try something else and see if that makes a difference to the urge to have a drink.”

Consider having a holiday from 
alcohol and treat it as an 
experiment to see what happens

“It’ll tell you what alcohol was doing for you, and 
it’ll also tell you what alcohol was doing to you.”

If you want to make a change, talk to a GP 
or drug and alcohol counsellors, Dr Hunt said.

Listen to Dr Sally Hunt’s presentation at the NSWNMA 74th Annual Conference on ‘Why are Australian women drinking more and what can we do about it?’

Intro by Sophie Scott (ABC)

Click here to download Dr Sally Hunt’s presentation