Women’s mental health and addiction: What do your cravings really mean?Feb 28, 2022
Off the bat, let’s get one thing straight: good mental health should never be exclusive to one gender. Mental health challenges are experienced by both men and women. And while the specific types of diagnosis may be different, the addictive patterns of behaviour that can follow usually share a common denominator. That is, that addiction isn’t actually the problem, it is a symptom of something else.
That’s why at The TARA Clinic, we work with all our clients - male or female - to help them understand that their cravings, triggers, and urges are really a response to try and manage their feelings. Ultimately, our goal is to teach healthy strategies to better deal with these emotions and bring about long-term improvements in mental health and wellbeing, that don’t rely on drugs, alcohol, or even food.
So why are we specifically talking about women’s mental health right now?
Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, fear, anger, or overwhelming stress are not exclusive to women, (or as a result of simply being female!). Nor are the responses that often follow.
Nonetheless, as we kick off Women's History Month, it is an opportunity to focus on the mental health challenges that are commonly experienced by women, as well as the behaviours where they often manifest.
The stats from Beyond Blue show that:
- Around 1 in 6 women in Australia will experience depression
- 1 in 3 women will experience anxiety during their lifetime and
- Women experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at higher rates than men.
If you find yourself experiencing these, and responding by making lifestyle choices that start to interfere with how you function in daily life, it can be a sign that you need support for an underlying condition instead of trying to cope on your own.
With that in mind, here are some of the common ways many women may respond to their mental health challenges, as well as my suggestions for alternative choices they can make.
The struggle of women juggling work, family, and social circles is so real. That might be why more women than ever are opting to unwind after work with a couple of glasses, and why “Mummy Wine Culture” is booming. Think: “Mum’s who need wine” Facebook groups or memes that “Tonight’s forecast is 99% chance of wine”.
More than ever women are being reassured that alcohol is a socially acceptable way to handle the stresses and anxieties of motherhood. And while it can deliver a short-term solution to a difficult day by helping you unwind, it’s important to keep in mind that in the long-term it can actually contribute to increased mental unwellness.
This is because alcohol is a depressant and changes neurological functions and depletes the chemicals in our brains that help reduce anxiety naturally. As a result, we can be left feeling even more stressed or depressed, and then feel we need more alcohol to help cope with these overwhelming feelings of anxiety.
But what if we told you there were alternatives?
To start, check out our blog on smarter drinking strategies (including working out your goals, what’s stopping you from reaching them, and setting realistic boundaries to help you stick to the plan). You may also want to consider adopting relaxation processes - such as mediation - to help ease stress and leave you feeling calmer and more positive throughout the day, reaching out for support - professional or otherwise - and (on a practical level) ensuring you have easy access to alcohol-free beverages as a substitute.
In a similar way to those looking for the feeling of immediate relief that alcohol can offer, at The TARA Clinic, we are seeing more women than ever turn to over-the-counter drugs to self-medicate their anxieties and try to change the way they feel.
Whether it’s a Valium to help you sleep or prescription pain killers to numb the general feelings of overwhelm, it’s not uncommon to self-medicate our angst as the world rollercoasters from one crisis to the next. But it’s not the only way to respond.
In addition to the tips above relating to mindful drinking, the solution to improper use of prescription meds (in fact, all addictions) actually lies in truly understanding your feelings and actively prioritising healthier ways to cope. Some options are a wholefoods diet, regular exercise, and better sleep routines, but talking to a therapist can also help.
So when does a casual scroll through Instagram become a cause for concern? Nick Glozier, professor of psychological medicine at the Brain and Mind Research Institute, Sydney Medical School summed it up perfectly when he said: “Excessive social media use may be re-wiring people’s brains, with every like or retweet acting as a reward and releasing small doses of dopamine that leave us happy. As a result, we adapt our behaviour to chase further chemical rewards within the brain, and feel craving like symptoms and anxiety when we can’t get them.”
So given that stopping isn’t the same as changing - and you’re probably not planning to throw away your smartphone any time soon! - I recommend looking at your digital device habits and restoring a healthy balance with these tips. 1) Deleting the social media apps which no longer add value to your life; 2) turning off notifications; 3) experimenting with occasional digital detoxes and 4) ultimately, managing your stress in helpful ways that give you back control over your life.
Whether your response to depression, anxiety, or stress sees you eating more than you ordinarily would or restricting your food intake as a control mechanism, it’s pretty common to treat our feelings with food. And while the benefits of a little “soul food” are real, when you regularly use it (or completely skip it) to avoid unpleasant feelings and deal with stress, anxiety, or depression, it can seriously impact your ongoing mental and physical health.
In these cases, my strongest suggestion for improving your mental health/food relationship is to seek professional medical advice from your doctor, who can educate you with a diagnosis and possible treatment options. Then, chat to a therapist who can help you depending on your individual circumstances and the type of eating disorder you have.
Retail therapy is probably one of the most socially acceptable “addictions”. According to a an article published in Frontiers in Psychology, shopping addiction (aka Compulsive Buying Behaviour or CBB), is “a mental health condition characterised by the persistent, excessive, impulsive, and uncontrollable purchase of products in spite of severe psychological, social, occupational, financial consequences.”
It can become an issue when the shopper regularly makes purchases they regret, spend more than they can afford, takes money from other people to shop, and compromises their values to shop.
In these instances, chatting to a professional therapist can really help you address the behaviours that may contribute to compulsive shopping. These are most effective when you supplement them with practical solutions such as: downloading a budgeting app to track your spending; finding free alternatives - such as a walk with a friend - to replace a trip to the stores when you’re feeling low; planning your shopping trips with a list and a limit; using your shopping time to rework your wardrobe and consider selling clothes that you no longer use, and leaving your credit card at home (if you have to go back for the item you may decide it’s not worth the effort!).