As for the magic number of drinks that allow you to reap these stress-relieving benefits without the negative effects, Dr. Wolfe says it varies from person to person based on factors like our body weight and metabolism. But somewhere past a few drinks, treating stress with alcohol does become detrimental. “When our blood alcohol content increases, we become emotional — or more emotionally unstable — as we experience impairments to memory and comprehension," Wolfe explains. "This makes managing stress while intoxicated even more challenging than it already is when we are clear-headed."
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, it's estimated that 5.3 million women in the United States "drink in a way that threatens their health, safety and general well-being." Meaning, they're frequently well over the CDC's recommended limit of one drink per day — which shakes out to either 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 8 ounces of malt alcohol.
Suffice it to say, being a stressed out woman who drowns her feelings in alcohol is not unique. In fact, a trip to any women's clothing store will make you feel like the habit actually earns you street cred. From t-shirts that define wine as a "hug in a glass" to graphic tees with pictures of multiple cocktails dubbed "group therapy" to one I came across recently that straight up stated "adulting requires alcohol," managing stress by knocking back a few cold ones is not only considered the norm for women — it's celebrated.
So when I spent a month doing the Whole 30 diet and cutting out everything processed from the menu — yes, alcohol included — you can bet I was met with groans from my girlfriends. (Not to mention, fewer wardrobe options.) But I did learn some valuable things about de-stressing without the help of a drink. Here are a few of the activities I replaced my glass of wine with during my 30-day detox that helped take the edge off my stress levels.
1. Take a walk
Bear with me here, because I know this one sounds like something out of a cheesy self-help book.
When stuff hits the fan at work, my automatic reaction is to first take to my group chat, complain to whoever will listen and start making happy hour plans. Second, I pay a visit to the office candy bowl. Both of those options were off the table when a last-minute deadline sprung up on me during the first week of clean eating and sobriety.
Out of habit, I still sent out a flurry of angry "I NEED A DRINK" texts, and got halfway to the office candy bowl before realizing that I couldn't have anything from it. Since I was already in motion, I decided to keep walking, head outside and do the whole "clear your head" thing. And it worked.
“If you can get a break from what’s stressing you out, take it," says Wolfe. "Disengaging from a stressful situation even for just a few minutes can make it much more manageable once you step back in.”
To decompress after a few particularly challenging work days, I walked from my office in New York City home to Queens. Crossing the Queensboro gave me something to focus on without being able to completely check out (bridge bikers are fearless and don't yield), which meant I couldn't fully let my mind wander to the thing that was stressing me out in the first place, and instead had to pay attention to my surroundings — both the rogue bikers and the scenic views of the city skyline.
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2. Spend time with your pet
As a single cat mom, I do my best to spend as much time with my cat Nightmare as possible — especially since it's just the two of us living together. But not being home as often as I'd like to be for her does contribute to my stress levels, to the point where I feel guilty staying out late at a happy hour when I know she's at home waiting for me.
Research shows that playing with and petting animals decreases the production of cortisol.
My sober month not only afforded me more time with my cat, but our playtime together started to feel almost therapeutic — so much so that I made it a priority to come home and spend at least thirty minutes every night unwinding by winding Nightmare up with her favorite toys.
“Research has shown that playing with and petting animals decreases stress for the same reasons exercise does: It decreases the production of stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) and increases the production of stress-reducing hormones (e.g. oxytocin)," explains Wolfe. “The heart of any stress-reducing regimen should be increasing the production of oxytocin and decreasing the production of cortisol. Alcohol doesn’t do this, but taking a break, getting good exercise and playing with pets are activities that do."
3. Watch something
When I'm not de-stressing at the bar, I'm usually doing so on my couch with a glass of wine in one hand and my remote in the other. The first time I sat down to do this sober, I found myself grabbing for my glass of wine where it usually sits in front of me out of habit. (Which was as sad as I'm making it sound.) While my usual pairing of wine and chick-flicks was hard to break at first, actually engaging with the story line (and not having to drunkenly rewind every other scene in order to follow along) was more helpful in allowing me to de-stress.
“Distracting yourself with a book can be a great way to relieve stress because it keeps your brain engaged and active, whereas watching TV is more passive," Wolfe explains. "But either way, some people find that engaging with the narrative of a film or book can help them relax."
When a week of relentless deadlines had me at what felt like my breaking point, I bought a ticket to a Broadway musical I had been wanting to see. Spending two hours away from reality left me feeling ready to take on whatever chaos I was about to walk into come the next morning.
Meditation and I have a rocky relationship and to be honest, the idea of sitting in silence with my thoughts or worse, having someone guide me through some weird visualization process, was not in the sober cards for me. But the further I got into my 30 days without alcohol (and the more the hits just kept on coming at work), the more I found myself taking deep breaths in and out at my desk in order to deal.