Women’s Additional Stress During the Holidays

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The holidays are difficult for many women. This may be especially true for women struggling with addiction. It may also be true for women who may not have a problem but turn to alcohol and drugs during the holiday season. The reason? Stress. 

Women’s burdens have increased significantly during the pandemic and this present economic downturn. With so much uncertainty, women may try extra hard to make this holiday season everything they themselves and others want it to be. There may be a heightened pressure to make up for the lost years.

Traditions and the values they represent are important. Men and women both tend to charge women with the task of preserving them. Men and children may put this pressure on women, but many women put that pressure on themselves. Some women may even recognize this yet are unable to lessen their own pressure. They may view lessening that pressure as shirking their responsibilities to meet the expectations of others. 

The holidays and the labor they require put extra burdens on already stretched women. During the year, women provide most of caring and domestic labors. Preparing special food, buying presents, hosting gatherings all get layered on top of the daily labors. Women between the ages of 50-65 may be caring for adult children or raising grandchildren while also caring for their own elderly parents or in-laws. These women experience multiple and competing demands, all of which cannot be met however hard a woman tries. Time becomes an enemy because there never seems to be enough of it.

Holidays are not cheap; household budgets become strained during them. Women often are the managers of the household budgets. Having to stretch very limited dollars during inflation may require additional time and effort. It also may require heartbreaking decisions about paying bills, buying presents, having money for school events, etc. There may be no genuine good choices but only choices that aren’t as bad. Many women report that they will sacrifice/go without something so that they can provide for others. 

All these stresses leave women especially vulnerable during the holiday season to using or abusing alcohol or drugs. Women who struggle with addiction or are in recovery may be vulnerable. Nostalgia can be seductive. So, too, is the belief that they are no longer the same person who struggled and are in a much better place in their lives. Perhaps they stop going to meetings or checking regularly with other friends in recovery. In the face of competing and unmeetable demands, women may put their sobriety further down the priority list. 

For those women who are not addicted, the extra glass of wine or an additional dose of a benzodiazepine (used to treat anxiety) may start to look more appealing. These may be viewed as a reward for all the hard work, a coping mechanism for the stress, or a well-deserved respite. Alcohol is a disinhibitor, which may make it easier to have another drink or combine it with a prescription medication. Benzos affect cognitive function, which may make bad or even dangerous situations look good. Adding embarrassment and regret to skyrocketing stress levels may only make a woman more vulnerable.

While women have been encouraged to think about others first, the holidays may be time when women need to think about ourselves first. One of the recommendations given during the flight safety overview is useful here. In the event of pressure change in the airplane, adults are told to put on their own oxygen masks before putting them on their children. Women need to do the equivalent with holidays. Women are under pressure and we need to be able to breathe—literally and figuratively—so we best ensure we can do so.

Peg O’Connor, PhD, is a recovering alcoholic of 34 years and has been a Professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN for 27 years. She believes that philosophy helped her to get and remain sober. She avoided Alcoholics Anonymous for the first 20 years of her sobriety because of the concept of a “higher power.”  Dr. O’Connor is the author of the new book, Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering (Wildhouse Publications, 2022) and Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery (Central Recovery Press, 2016). She also writes a column, “Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken,” for Psychology Today that has nearly 2,000,000 total views and select columns have appeared in the print publication.