Risk of relapse in times of social distancing

Excessive alcohol consumption, such as binge drinking, is a global health concern among women. According to the CDC, gender differences such as body structure and brain chemistry can cause women to absorb more alcohol and take longer to remove from their system. About 12% of adult women binge drink three times a month, with an average of 5 drinks per binge. The drinking patterns can have adverse effects on the liver, heart, and brain. There are several options in helping reduce the risk of alcohol, one of which is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

AA is an international program for recovering alcoholics where they help those in need through support groups, self-help groups, and abstinence models. It is a way to improve on emotional, mental, psychological, and physical stability and well-being. AA groups support those in need through regular group meetings and are crucial in the recovery program. The initiation of physically going to a meeting, sitting in a chair, and listening to others that can relate to you is powerful. For those who have gone through the program and are on their way to a milestone of sobriety, certain factors can have an impact on relapse. It’s difficult enough to acknowledge the fact that someone might need help and support in alcohol consumption reduction, but now let’s add a global pandemic to the mix…



The pandemic has brought on many changes to lives such as unemployment, self-isolation, quarantine, social distancing, and closing of businesses. These factors can greatly increase stress and anxiety in an individual or in a community. Stress induces structural and functional ramifications on the brain producing altered behaviors in individuals’ coping capabilities. A global pandemic just magnifies these stressful conditions. Stress and anxiety have been found to be important triggers for relapse and they promote increased motivation to drink in some individuals. Studies have shown that for women, marriage and martial stress are triggers for relapses in alcohol.

COVID-19 has placed a financial burden on millions of people as they have filed for unemployment. The stress and anxiety from wondering how they will pay bills, when will they get their job back, or even if they will get their job back, can be a trigger to relapsing. Women who are independent and have to support their children might find comfort in their “mommy-juice” like before. According to Dr. Koob, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Director, physical or social distancing can impact treatment services. Social support is an influential and beneficial reinforcer for helping people avoid relapses. Another trigger to alcohol relapse is that drinking has become a societal norm. Social media is teeming with alcohol ads and memes. The pressure from society that you need to drink to relieve stress can trigger alcoholics into relapsing. Even memes on AA programs have become degraded and seen as a joke for after the global pandemic ends. 



But all is not lost… Even in these trying times, there have been some programs that have migrated towards hosting virtual sessions and have overcome the obstacles COVID-19 has presented. The Atlanta AA program, along with other city programs, have converted to a digital platform devoted to people in recovery. As mentioned earlier, women metabolize alcohol differently than men and this can put them at jeopardy if it’s not managed. Many AA communities have special interest women’s meetings where it might be easier to identify as an alcoholic among other women. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has many great resources on alcohol relapse during COVID-19. The resources include professionally led treatment via phone or video, therapy sessions, mutual support groups, podcasts, and apps.



[1] Becker, H.C. 2017. Influence of stress associated with chronic alcohol exposure on drinking. Neuropharmacology. 122, 115-126.

[2] Burtscher, J., Burtscher, M., Millet G.P. 2020. (Indoor) isolation, stress and physical inactivity: vicious circles accelerated by Covid‐19?. doi:10.1111/sms.13706

[3] Ferri, M., Amato, L., Davoli, M. 2006. Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes for alcohol dependence. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. (3):CD005032.

[4] Walitzer, K.S., Dearing, R.L. 2006. Gender differences in alcohol and substance use relapse. Clinical Psychology Review. 26, 128-148.


One thought on “Risk of relapse in times of social distancing

  1. Great blog! On May 19th, Nightline on ABC featured a special “Staying Sober in the Age of COVID-19”, which highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on women who are recovering from alcohol use disorder. It featured two women, one woman was a mother of 3 and a wife. She mentioned how juggling work, being a mom, wife, and homeschooling has been a tough task, especially while quarantined. Before COVID-19 she was able to have “mommy breaks”; however, not being able to go to the park or other places to relieve stress is testing her patience and sobriety. Good news is that she is still choosing to stay sober and attend AA meetings online. Her story is just one of many women who are struggling to hold on to their sobriety in the mist of this pandemic.

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