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Alcohol, Women, And Lockdown

By Chris Cordell

women and alcohol

Research, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health and led by the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, found that women were drinking more, and with increased frequency than they did before lockdown.

The research found that much of the basis of the increase was due to increases in stress. The researchers suggested “women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to unequal power relations in society, with women more likely to experience the additional burden of childcare and more likely to work in sectors worst affected by the pandemic”.

According to a RAND Corporation study, during the pandemic women have increased their heavy drinking days by 41% compared to before the pandemic.

This is extremely worrying, especially on the back of previous research published in The Lancet that indicates women in the UK are already among the biggest drinkers in the world.

The findings raise questions about the growing consumption of alcohol among women.

Alcohol Affects Women Differently than Men

Although men are more likely to drink alcohol and consume larger amounts, biological differences in body structure and chemistry leads women’s bodies to absorb more alcohol and reach higher blood alcohol concentrations than men who drink the same amount because their bodies take longer to metabolize (break down and remove) alcohol. Some reasons include: 

  • They have less body water than men, pound for pound (alcohol resides mainly in body water).
  • Their body structures and chemistry are different.
  • On average, we weigh less than men.

These differences also make women more susceptible to the long-term negative health effects of alcohol compared with men.

Problematic drinking is harmful to both genders but here are some of the areas in which women experience more effects than men who drink alcohol at the same rate as women:

Liver Damage

Compared with men, women develop alcohol-induced liver disease over a shorter period of time and after consuming less alcohol. Women are also more likely than men to develop alcoholic hepatitis and to die from cirrhosis.

Brain Damage

Women may be more vulnerable than men to alcohol-induced brain damage. Conditions like Korsakoff syndrome is not the only mechanism through which heavy drinking may contribute to chronic thinking changes and cognitive decline. Alcohol misuse also may lead to brain damage through:

  • The direct toxic effects of alcohol on brain cells.
  • The biological stress of repeated intoxication and withdrawal.
  • Alcohol-related cerebrovascular disease.
  • Head injuries sustained when inebriated.

Heart Disease

Women suffer higher rates of alcohol-associated heart muscle disease

Breast Cancer

Many studies report that moderate to heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk for breast cancer. It is estimated that one-third of breast cancer cases could be prevented if women did not drink alcohol, were physically active, and maintained healthy weight.

Mental Health Issues

Alcohol is a depressant so actually compounds mental health problems as opposed to alleviating them. That being said women have twice the risk of men for depression, and anxiety in the first place. Stress is usually a precursor to many of these conditions and as  indicated above women have been disproportionately affected stress wise by the pandemic.

woman and alcohol

Many Women Who Are Struggling With Alcohol Problems Do Not Seek Treatment.

Although Help Me Stop has always had a high proportion of women attending its face to face and online treatment programmes, nationally women are often reluctant to seek treatment for alcohol problems.

Some of the main reasons are highlighted below:

  • Women often turn to alcohol to deal with the effects of a crisis, such as a divorce, separation or break up of a relationship. In addition, women are more likely to increase their alcohol use if they have lost a child or after a child grows up and leaves the home. This being the case women often feel that these are difficult issues to discuss in the first place, let alone in what they perceive are male dominated services. However, in reality many services are dominated by female therapists as staff and women are often surprised to learn that there are actually more women accessing services than they thought.
  • Women are often assigned the role of caregiver in their families. This may make it difficult for many women to enter treatment and discuss their issues freely as there are concerns about social services involvement and having their children taken into care. Of course, it is essential that children whose welfare may be at risk as a result of their parents’ alcohol use are identified in order to protect them and promote their welfare, however the threshold for social services involvement is variable and as such their notification is seldom required. Even if it is deemed appropriate for their involvement they would actively promote and support a women’s involvement in treatment as well as keeping the children with their families if deemed in the child's best interest.
  • Specific issues, such as childcare, keep women from seeking treatment. It can be hard to access treatment if you must pick up and drop off your children at school each day and that your only treatment options are 9 – 5 types of services or residential services. This is partly the reason why Help Me Stop developed its online services in the morning and evenings and our part time face to face services in the day, so that childcare can be fit around treatment.
  • There are other issues that contribute to women not accessing treatment such as the stigmatization of women with alcohol problems, particularly if they are parents – the idea of the “bad mother” which creates a level of internal shame that keeps many women away from treatment. However, at Help Me Stop we have lost count of the number of women that have come into treatment that feel a huge sigh of relief when they encounter other woman all feeling the same thing and having similar struggles. That being said many women in treatment often need to develop their own personal identity as opposed to only identifying themselves as a “wife,” “mother,” “caregiver,” etc.
  • Sign of weakness. In a world where, more often than not, women are juggling a career, being a partner/wife and mother there is this perceived idea that turning to alcohol because you are struggling is some sort of weakness. That if you show a chink in your amour then you will be lambasted for daring to step outside of the “kitchen sink”. Actually, realizing you have a problem and doing something about it is the total opposite – it’s a sign of strength.

What Are My Options If I Have Developed A problem With Alcohol?

Well one is to ignore it and hope it will sort itself out. This "head in the sand" approach does not work and if anything it makes things worse as the longer you put off doing anything about it the more damage you are doing to yourself, the people around you as well as work opportunities etc.

The second option is to get help. Stopping and staying stopped is not as easy as it sounds.

Stopping and staying stopped is about a psychological shift and lifestyle change which best comes about through psychological therapies and peer support. Peer support like SMART or AA is great and is highly recommended, but they are not a replacement for psychotherapy or are formal psychotherapy. Neither are SMART or AA   run by trained addiction psychotherapists and neither will get to the fundamental bottom of your use from a psychological perspective. Getting to the psychological reasons why you drinking and then doing something about it is fundamental to long term behaviour change and staying stopped.

There is no magic pill or magic wand to stopping and staying stopped. There is no quick fix, it takes the right levels and types of support, time, motivation, and hard work.

Giving up drinking after prolonged use can be extremely difficult because the body is so used to functioning with the substance. Dealing with a hangover is one thing but learning to stop and stay stopped is another.

If you are concerned about your relationship with alcohol, or someone else’s, and want to stop and staying stopped then call us now on 0208 191 8920 or jump onto Live Chat/email us directly at https://helpmestop.org.uk/contact-us

Help Me Stop’s intensive non-residential outpatient Dayhab alcohol treatment programme is an effective psychological solution that also offers 3 months of free accessible aftercare and family support options. Treatment is delivered face to face either in the mornings or afternoons over 6 weeks.

For those adults can’t get to our centre in West London we offer a 6-week morning or evening online outpatient alcohol treatment programme, run by the same therapists that provide the face-to-face programme.


Chris Cordell is Help Me Stop's General Manager and is a senior associate member of the Royal Society of Medicine, Certified International Recovery Specialist, member of the International Society of Addiction Medicine and a member of the Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals.


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