Your drinking decisions could leave you with more than a hangover. From coping with motherhood to finding connection, we explore our drinking culture.
Why do we drink alcohol? It’s become such a normal part of many of our lives that we may not have stopped to ask ourselves that question. But it’s something we should possibly reflect on as we settle into a summer of socialising and relaxing. I’m sure you know the reasons for not drinking alcohol; I’ve certainly written about them many times. Here’s a potted version of alcohol’s health impacts, in bullet point form, for the record:
- Alcohol is a Group 1 carcinogen (the same group as tobacco and asbestos) and linked with at least nine different cancers
- Alcohol consumption puts us at higher risk of a range of diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and liver disease
- Alcohol puts us at higher risk of accidents, both in and outside the home
- Alcohol interferes with our sleep and our moods, having a detrimental effect on both
- Alcohol is a sure-fire way to pack on weight – a 150ml glass (that’s fairly small) of white wine has roughly the same kilojoules as two and a half Gingernuts or one Tim Tam.
We know all this, and yet we still drink – myself included. Why? I chatted to my friend, nutritionist Claire Turnbull, about this recently. She says there are powerful psychological reasons women drink, and that social media (and society in general) has a lot to answer for.
Dealing with stress
“For many women, alcohol has become the normal coping strategy for difficult situations,” Claire explains.
Women at all stages of life will recognise this idea. We have stressful jobs, relationship and family pressure, and a wine or gin or beer with a partner or friends (or by yourself) is a coping strategy and a physical release. It’s a wind-down after a busy day, and a socially acceptable way to take the edge off any uncomfortable feelings you may have.
Claire reckons – apart from the fact that alcoholic drinks taste good and help us relax – for some women, drinking has become a sort of “social glue”; a thing that connects us together.
“When you talk to another woman about alcohol, there is a mutual understanding and a humour that is shared,” says Claire. “It’s exactly the same as kids… at the moment my son is trading Pokemon cards in the playground, and it’s a connection thing. If he didn’t have these cards, he wouldn’t be part of what’s normal within his group.”
Coping with motherhood
We’ve all seen – or been part of – the “mum drinking” memes. They’re all over social media. “The most expensive part of being a mum is all the wine you have to drink”, or “Tonight’s forecast: 99% chance of wine”.
“The mum thing is unreal,” says Claire. “It’s the social norm in our society for coping with parenting as a woman.”
Social media plays a big part here. Claire explains that the increased connectivity has made alcohol something that binds mums together and makes them feel understood.
With many women feeling like they’ve lost their identity with motherhood, Claire says that sometimes “the one thing that is easily accessible, affordable, changes the way you feel and relaxes you is alcohol. And the social conversation around it has reinforced that.”
This gives licence to some drinking behaviour that’s verging on problematic. Claire cites women pouring wine into a mug to drink while the kids are in the bath in the early evening. What’s the feeling women are chasing in that bath-time moment?
“You’re doing something for yourself in a moment where nothing else is possible. What is the one thing that you can do while children are in the bath or screaming? You can’t take yourself off for five minutes to be mindful. Anyone who says you can is lying.
“What you can do is put wine in a mug and drink it in the bathroom. And it changes the way you feel. And your friend is texting at the same time telling you it’s OK. You’ve had a connected moment.”
How to get a better balance
Assuming we’re not that comfortable with this – or we don’t like the look of those bullet points – how can we get a better balance around alcohol?
“I guess the number one thing is being aware of what you’re doing”, says Claire. Getting clear on what is driving the drinking, “and if there are times you know you are drinking to manage your feelings, what else can you do instead? What other things will help you feel connected?
“If you can just catch yourself in that moment of decision; if you can realise you’ve got a choice, you’ve got the power, and actually the wine does not make you feel better.”
She recommends having alternatives to alcohol easily accessible, and making the alcohol harder to access. Don’t keep wine in the kitchen, or even in the fridge, for example. You’ll have to make a much more conscious decision about having it.
And when it comes to socialising, try the occasional catch-up that doesn’t revolve around drinking – the “walk and talk”, for example. You might be surprised how much you enjoy this.
Self-reflection is useful, too, says Claire.
“It’s about thinking: what are you not getting? What are you giving up by drinking like that? What is the cost of it to you?
“The main one is sleep. I do not think people realise the disruption on the quality of their sleep with alcohol. Many women will say, ‘God, if I could just sleep more’ – but they do not realise the alcohol actually makes you agitated and anxious and creates all the negative mental wellbeing things that then drive the behaviour.”
It’s taken her years, Claire says, to get to a point where she drinks very little, which is something she’s chosen because of the anxiety alcohol gives her. For myself, I’m at that point because I can’t cope with hangovers (as we age, they hit much harder) and any more than two or three drinks makes me highly unproductive the next day.
Whatever your decision around drinking – and it might be you don’t want or need to change – making it a conscious one can be a powerful and positive thing.