This week, you may have heard or read about a World Health Organisation study and its findings on alcohol. One of the headline findings was that Irish women now rank seventh in the world for the amount of alcohol they consume daily as the 'wine o'clock' culture takes a major toll on health. The report shows women in this country are downing three drinks a day on average and are ranked higher in the global league table than Irish men.
While this is shocking, I have to say that, as a counsellor specialising in addictions, this does not surprise me at all. Over the last few years, I have seen more and more women presenting with alcohol problems. Almost invariably, they are drinking at home on a daily basis. The vast majority will tell me that many of their friends do the same.
Usually, by the time a female client will seek help, she will be drinking at least one bottle of wine per night, mid-week, with more at the weekends. One bottle of wine contains at least 7.5 units of alcohol (sometimes more, depending on the strength). One bottle of wine, 7 times a week would be in the region of 52.5 units per week. The low-risk weekly guideline for women is 11 units. It's important to keep in mind that this is low-risk, not "no-risk". In fact the recent WHO study states that "the level of consumption that minimises health loss is zero" - meaning that any potential benefits from drinking alcohol are outweighed by the harms. Even at the average of 3 units per day, a woman would be at close to double the 'low-risk' guideline.
As women metabolise alcohol differently to men, they typically start to have alcohol-related problems at lower drinking levels than men and are more likely to develop liver inflammation than men.
So, why are so many women drinking alcohol at home? Here are some of the most common underlying issues that I come across in my practice:
There is no doubt about it - the world we live in is almost perfectly designed to create over-stimulation of our stress and Fight-or-Flight responses. Many of us will reach for a drink to 'take the edge off' a particularly stressful day. Unfortunately, while this provides short-term relief, it only serves to increase our stress levels the following day, as the alcohol disrupts the normal production of important endorphins and neurotransmitters, as well as disrupting our sleep. It can be very easy to fall into the trap of 'taking the edge off' our hangover and entering into a vicious cycle, which can spiral out of control.
There are countless ways of managing stress that are far, far better for you than that glass (or bottle) of wine. Check out the Stress Management section of this blog for some tips.
"Wine O'Clock" Has Been Normalised
In a relatively short space of time, we have gone from being a nation of pub-goers to predominantly drinking at home. A bottle of wine (7.5 units) can be bought in a supermarket for a similar price to a standard measure of wine in a bar. Many wine glasses that we would have in the home will comfortably hold multiple units of wine. In fact, there are some glasses out there that will hold an entire bottle! So, it can be very easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we're drinking less than we actually are.
Also, during the Celtic Tiger years, we started to get notions that we could drink wine 'like the people of the Mediterranean'. Unfortunately, we don't have the culture, climate, diet or genetic makeup of those people. They would tend, for the most part, to have one small glass of wine with a meal (which they would eat slowly). They would not consume a full bottle, while eating Pringles and binge-watching Game of Thrones (on a Tuesday night). Let's not kid ourselves. Just because 'everyone else is doing it', doesn't mean it's good for you (or them).
The "Mrs Doyle Effect"
One of the biggest issues for anybody trying to stop or reduce their drinking in Ireland is something I like to refer to as the "Mrs Doyle Effect". It goes something like this: you're at some social occasion - wedding, christening . . . whatever . . . You have decided that you're not going to drink tonight. Maybe you've taken the car with you, as a preventative measure. Your friend(s) or family member(s) proceed to pester the head off you all night. "Ah, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on . . . . Sure, you can have one and still drive. You'll be grand. Leave the car here and get a taxi. Don't be a dry-arse. You're no fun." And so on . . . and on . . . and on . . .
This is absolute torture for anybody being subjected to it. Please, if you have a tendency to go all Mrs Doyle on your friends or family members, I urge you to do them a huge favour and respect their decision not to drink. It won't negatively impact on your ability to enjoy your night and it will definitely improve their's.
Many people use alcohol and other drugs to manage poor sleep. This is a recipe for poor physical and mental health. While alcohol will make you drowsy and and may help you to fall asleep, it will leave you with disrupted, fitful sleep as it is metabolised during the night. According to Neuroscientiest and sleep expert, Dr Matthew Walker, “Sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting”. I highly recommend listening to Walker's interview on the Joe Rogan Podcast.
If you are a shift-worker, as so many of my clients are, you need to pay particular attention to the quality and duration of your sleep (7-9 hours per day).
Many of my clients are self-medicating with alcohol, in order to deal with traumatic experiences. These are wide-ranging, but would include: motor accidents, bereavements, assaults, miscarriages, still-births, traumatic births and witnessing the death or injury of a loved one. More and more services and practitioners are engaging in trauma-informed care. Effective treatments are available, including Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) and the Rewind Technique (which I use in my own practice). Alcohol will do nothing to resolve trauma and only increases the risk of depression and anxiety (common symptoms of trauma).
Of course, it makes no sense to consume a depressant when we're feeling depressed - but humans aren't well-known for always behaving logically. Many of us will 'turn to the bottle' when we're feeling low. Obviously, this only makes a bad situation worse. There are many effective approaches for treating depression, including: medication, talk therapy and lifestyle changes. Aware provide support groups and helpline services, for anyone affected by depression in Ireland. Post-natal depression is under-diagnosed and under-treated in Ireland. Specialist services, such as Nurture, have counsellors in most locations in Ireland.
Boredom & Loneliness
According to the German philosopher, Schopenhauer, "The two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom". Boredom is a very common trigger for all forms of addiction. If you're considering changing your drinking, it can help to plan enjoyable activities. Leaving yourself with large pockets of time, where you can stare at the walls and think about how lovely it would be to have a drink, will make life unpleasant and increase your chances of relapsing.
For many years, Alcoholics Anonymous have been using the acronym, HALT, as a relapse-prevention tool. It's a useful way of reminding ourselves to take a moment (HALT) and ask ourselves if we are: Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. When these basic needs aren't met, we are more susceptible to self-destructive behaviours, including relapse. Loneliness in Ireland is now at such high levels, that the government have established a Task Force to deal with the issue. Many of my clients have used the Meet Up platform or volunteering as ways to meet new people with similar interests.
At the other end of the spectrum, are people who are not lonely, but in unhealthy, unhappy relationships. These could be with your partner, parent, sibling, friend or even your child. Examining the dynamic in these relationships and (most importantly) your role in that dynamic, can sometimes help you to better understand your drinking. Improving your understanding of codependent relationships and what healthy communication looks like, can have a hugely beneficial impact on your interactions with others, as well as your own personal development.
You Can Do This!
Making changes in your drinking can be challenging - but it can be done. You weren't born with a bottle of Prosecco in your hand. Drinking is not an innate part of your identity. You've probably had some of the most enjoyable times of your life stone-cold sober. If you are experiencing any of the underlying issues, above - your life will definitely be improved by changing your drinking. If you want to calculate your weekly alcohol intake and learn more about some of the benefits of reducing, just go to the HSE's excellent askaboutalcohol website.
As Mrs Doyle might say: "Go on, go on, go on, go on . . . . . . . "
Barry Grant, Counsellor