On my way to work, I noticed a new billboard advertising a cabernet sauvignon. It showed a cute little pug puppy lying on top of a pile of chewed high heels with the caption, “Make it a CAB day.” OK, at this point, we all know the well-worn jokes about women and needing a glass of wine. (If not, I suggest a quick hashtag search on Instagram for “Wine-o Wednesday” or “wine o-clock” mantras.) But what’s meant to be a source of bonding and camaraderie among women has, unfortunately, become more of a serious problem.
Recent research shows a rise in binge drinking, especially among women. Binge drinking is considered having four drinks on one occasion and high-risk drinking is considered binge drinking at least once per week—amounts that surprise a lot of people. The study compared data from 2001 to 2002 to data from 2012 to 2013, and its findings indicated that alcohol use had increased by 11 percent. The study also found that heavy drinking among women increased 58 percent.
What contributes to this trend? While you might think binge drinking means rowdy college kids in a sports bar, it’s actually way more common in the daily lives of adults. First of all, there is a common misconception about what actually constitutes a standard drink: 12 fluid ounces of a standard 5% alcohol beer (although keep in mind that alcohol content differs from beer to beer), 8 to 9 fluid ounces of malt liquor, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces of a hard liquor. So you may think you are drinking a “standard” glass of wine when, in fact, your glass might have 6 to 7 fluid ounces in it, so it's actually a glass and a half; have a second one and now you're actually three drinks in.
It's worth saying here that not all drinking is binge drinking. Many people can enjoy a glass of wine or two without it becoming an unhealthy coping mechanism. In fact, there are health benefits associated with drinking one to two four ounce glasses per day, including reducing your risk of a heart attack, reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes, reducing the risk of a stroke, and slowing brain decline. But not all drinking is healthy drinking.
Perceptions about drinking are also changing among women. An NPR article reported that many alcohol companies have started targeting women in their advertising, much like the billboard I saw on my morning commute. The lead author of the study told New York Magazine’s The Science of Us that the 2008 decline in the economy is also a likely factor because people often use alcohol as a coping mechanism and form of self-medication. Many people see a couple glasses of wine or beer at the end of a long day as a harmless way to unwind. Unfortunately, this habit can really backfire—alcohol can actually disrupt your sleep cycle, preventing you from getting a good night’s rest and creating a domino effect of more stress.
The rising trend in binge drinking, especially among women is alarming for many reasons, including the health risks. Remember how moderate drinking is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes? High-risk drinking is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, stroke, certain types of cancer, and pancreatitis. So someone who is binge drinking on a regular basis isn’t receiving those health benefits that are often touted when it comes to drinking.
As a therapist, I’m more concerned with why we're seeing more women binge drink. I worry women are using alcohol to mask all manner of emotions that will eventually pop the cork, so to speak. Using alcohol to cope is a common way to avoid negative emotions, uncomfortable decisions, and everyday stress that piles up. When things seem overwhelming, it’s tempting to turn to alcohol to help you mask those negative emotions for a while. When you’re feeling the pleasant buzz a few glasses of wine in, the maxed out credit card, argument with your significant other, or work deadlines seem to fade away. The problem is that this only provides temporary relief. Once that buzz wears off, the stressors are still there—sometimes worse than before.
So how can you protect yourself from slipping into a habit of binge drinking to relieve stress? Having a glass of wine at night doesn’t mean that you will automatically become a binge-drinker, but it’s important to be aware of your drinking habits. If you’re consuming more than four drinks on one occasion once a week, you might want to consider reevaluating your drinking habits. Similarly, if that glass of wine or cocktail after work becomes two or three, or a necessity instead of a treat, it’s probably time to examine the role drinking plays in your life. A good guideline for monitoring your drinking is to ask yourself, before you reach for your drink, why you feel like drinking in that moment. If you’re drinking because of stress, you’ll likely benefit from a better strategy like going for a mind-clearing walk, calling a friend, or taking a mindful chocolate break instead.
Being aware of your alcohol consumption and your reasons for drinking are important components of having a healthy relationship with alcohol. Sticking to the one-glass-a-day rule will help you reap the health benefits of wine without sliding in the damaging binge drinking category. You don’t have to be a statistic in the rise of binge drinking among women and you can raise awareness of the issue to help others. Cheers to that!