The pandemic may have created a nation of problem drinkers -- and many are women

(CNN)For many people, social drinking is a celebrated pastime. At least it was in the good old days -- you know, before we began living Covid's nightmare version of Bill Murray's "Groundhog Day."

During the pandemic's repetitive grind, enjoying an occasional glass of wine with the girls has been replaced by Zoom wine hour, or worse, drinking in solitary confinement.
    "The data we have shows that drinking is definitely up since the start of the pandemic -- around a 14% increase in the number of drinking days per month," said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, medical director of the Substance Use Disorders Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital.
      For women, the numbers are even higher, Wakeman said. "There's actually been a 41% increase in heavy drinking days among women since onset of the pandemic."
      Why would more women be turning to drink than men?
      "Studies have shown the complexities of balancing home, work and caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on women," said Dr. Leena Mittal, chief of the women's mental health division in the department of psychiatry at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
        "There's also a lot of marketing of new alcohol products targeting women and especially moms," said Mittal, at a time when everyone is watching a lot more TV. Add to that the pre-pandemic "mom wine culture that normalized and, in some ways, even glorified" alcohol, and the line between social drinking and at-risk drinking can quickly "become blurry," she said.

        A tale of lost boundaries

        The pandemic has also blurred the boundaries between home and work for many women. Mittal tells the story of one of her female patients who walked home from work in pre-pandemic days.
        "She would have a 30- or 45-minute walk that served as exercise, it served as alone time, it served as stress relief," Mittal said. "She could transition from work to home responsibilities, and in the end, it gave her a buffer."
        But since the pandemic, those lines have blurred. In an effort to create a sense of space for herself, Mittal's patient began to turn to alcohol instead.
        There is a link between alcohol intake and the risk of female breast cancer, said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, medical director of Mass General's Substance Use Disorders Initiative.
        "After her kids went to bed, she would have a glass of wine or two. Sometimes it would be tea, but often it would be wine and it quickly became more than she had been drinking in the past," Mittal said. "And I think this is a really common story."
        Coping is even harder for those who were already struggling with alcohol and substance abuse before the pandemic began, experts stress.
        "It's like the whole society is on fire, including those who have known mental health and substance use disorders," Mittal said.

        Health dangers of drinking