As women, I believe that we are all familiar with societal pressures to "do it all." Some women thrive under this mindset during normal circumstances, however, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in all of our lives and added an unprecedented level of stress and additional barriers to normalcy. How can we, as women, now handle our "new normal?" How can we do it all, when that now means so much more and doing anything is more difficult than it's ever been before?
Everyone has experienced the impact of COVID-19. However, I believe that, because of women's propensity to take on the stress of people around us, the impact of the pandemic on our mental health can have dangerous lasting effects—especially when it comes to increased alcohol or drug consumption.
COVID's Effect On Mental Health
Our lives have significantly changed in the past six months as COVID-19 has disrupted our everyday routines, the stressors we face, and the expectations we'd set for ourselves. Changes in our work and social lives have left us feeling isolated, and disruptions in childcare and schooling have added more responsibility to parent's plates throughout the day.
How can we do it all, when that now means so much more and is more difficult than it's ever been before?
I myself have experienced the added stressors of this new norm: the loneliness of social isolation, new routines for my children, my underlying worries about their health, along with the natural stress that comes with starting a new job at an addiction treatment center that opened in the midst of a global pandemic.
At times, these past six months or so have felt entirely overwhelming; we don't always know where to look for relief. I am fortunate that my career has taught me to find healthy ways to relieve stress, however, many people are turning to very unhealthy, and even dangerous, stress relievers during this time.
Looking For Relief
From my work at Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research, I have seen, first-hand, the danger of heightened risk for alcohol and drug abuse that has resulted from COVID-19. Social isolation coupled with job losses, financial frustrations, and health concerns have caused many people to look for new outlets to relax, relieve stress, and provide entertainment.
While substance use disorder (SUD) has always been a global health concern, never in my 14 years as a licensed clinician have I seen such a concerning impact upon my field. Due to the pandemic, there have been disturbing increases in reports of alcohol sales, overdoses, and addiction relapses. In March, the first month of quarantine, alcohol sales rose 55% from last year.
Women and Drug and Alcohol Abuse
When you're home all day, the hours can blend together, boundaries may disappear, and suddenly it's more difficult to distinguish when lunchtime turns to cocktail hour. Or perhaps, reaching for a cocktail signals that it's finally time to relax and unwind. For women, moderate drinking is defined as one drink per day, while heavy drinking is defined as eight drinks or more per week.
Zoom "happy hours" sprung up in the early days of the pandemic, which at the time provided a much-needed way for people, especially women, to connect with friends. But as these get-togethers mainly revolved around drinking alcohol, they sometimes perpetuated the desire to consider a second, third, or even fourth glass of wine or cocktail. As the weeks in quarantine piled up, so did alcohol consumption. Additionally, social media has played a significant role in bolstering this behavior with alcohol-related memes, including "quarantinis," making light of the "need to drink" mentality to get through this difficult time.
When you're home all day, the hours can blend together, boundaries may disappear, and suddenly it's more difficult to distinguish when lunchtime turns to cocktail hour.
For women who are mothers of school-age children, homeschool became an added burden, and for many moms, will again be a challenge as we enter the upcoming school year. This new role of "teacher," on top of one's own job, housework, and the lack of interaction with friends can heighten many emotions tied to depression and anxiety, and alcohol or other substances can serve as a way to cope.
While alcohol and drugs provide an "escape" from reality as a way to handle difficult feelings and emotions, they are also dangerous and risky, especially if someone has past issues or does not handle consumption carefully.
From my experience in the addiction treatment space, the most vulnerable are often those who could relapse or have an increased risk for substance abuse—whether they are completely isolated, have a history of past misuse, are experiencing increasing mental health symptoms, or have a family history of addiction. With in-person support meetings canceled, disruptions of routine, and heightened stress, the risk of relapse for those in recovery is inflated.
Healthy Ways to Deal with Ongoing Pandemic Stress
Give Yourself Grace
In this new reality, we have to shift our expectations and mindset to one of understanding and acceptance—of not only others but of ourselves as well. Now, more than ever, we must give ourselves grace to deal with the new stressors that we've taken on during this unprecedented global pandemic.
Create a Circle of Support
If you are struggling in a particular area of your life, find a group of women who are in the same position and create a circle of support. Facebook Groups or Zoom calls are excellent ways to leverage technology to connect with others and evoke a sense of comradery and support during this time. My own circle started using Zoom for coffee dates and it's brought so much value in just being able to see their faces. Making the commitment to stay connected to others is a reflection of a commitment to yourself.
For people in recovery, I'm encouraged by the number of group meetings that have transitioned to online formats, empowering people to get the help they need in the safety of their own homes. Women for Sobriety, for example, has an open forum called the "New Life Program" for women who are struggling with addiction, which provides the opportunity for ongoing discussions online.
Now, more than ever, we must give ourselves grace to deal with the new stressors that we've taken on during this unprecedented global pandemic.
Take a Moment for Yourself
As women, we often put everyone else before ourselves. Taking care of our immediate family, checking in on friends and extended family, stepping up to help out co-workers who may be struggling right now—the list goes on. The struggle to "do it all" prevails.
But it's also important to take a moment to put yourself first. My personal self-care "moments" include practicing yoga through my local library's free Zoom classes, journaling my thoughts, and spending as much time as possible outdoors hiking and gardening. Sometimes, my time outdoors is alone, sometimes it is with others. It really depends on what I need at that moment.
Avoid Unhealthy Triggers
If you feel you are looking for relief in unhealthy ways—such as the desire to use drugs or alcohol—remove those triggers from your home or wherever you are isolating. And, if you feel you've lost control during this pandemic, know that there are people here to support you. Seek advanced, patient-centric care to help you get back on track.
This year has tested us all in ways that we could have never prepared for. Who would have thought that 2020 would bring experiences in homeschooling, working from home, and have made us all well-versed in video chat applications? I certainly didn't! But if my time working in addiction treatment has taught me anything, it is that we can all overcome obstacles and get through even the most trying times. The key to coming out of this better than before is to give yourself grace, set realistic expectations, and find healthy ways to relieve stress.
WRITTEN BYKyle Vatalaro, LCSW