Drinking to de-stress is powerfully compulsive 

Hands up, I’m guilty, says Marisa Bate. But it’s not wine that’s the problem – it’s our overly chaotic and overly complicated lives

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By Marisa Bate on

One of the things I really enjoy about a glass of wine is the noise: the pop of a cork, the glass on the counter, the opening and closing of the fridge, the glug of liquid, the chink of my rings across the stem. There is a percussion instrumental to my after-work wine that is like other people’s chillout albums that help them sleep or do yoga to.  As the sequence of sounds begin, it’s as if I’m taking a deep breath and slipping off hot shoes in the summer. It’s the sound of unwinding, relaxing, a well-deserved break. Once sat, either in the pub near the office or on my sofa cueing up The Good Wife, my shoulders drop, my arms are looser. I take my first sip. Everything will be fine. 

And the busier or more stressed I am, the more the sound of the glugging wine seems to be the surest way to make things remain fine. The longer the days, the bigger the workload, the more demanding the interviewee/the client/the colleague, the more often I text my friend, “Quick drink on the way home?” If I’m a collection of sharp, angular limbs, all spiky and stiff by the end of the day, a glass of wine (or three) is like a hot bath, melting everything back into place, wrapping me in a warm, loose fuzz.

I guess it’s fairly safe to say then that I use booze as a stress relief and it’s something I began to think about when I heard Freddie Flintoff’s Desert Island Discs at the weekend. The former England cricketer said that he had used booze as a way to deal with the pressure. Prone to depression, the alcohol led him to dark places. “I don’t touch the stuff now” he said (“the stuff” sounding like a dangerous, toxic, harmful drug, not an end-of-day treat). Admittedly, I haven’t captained the England cricket team, or any team for that matter, but his words struck a chord. 

Because, when it’s a Tuesday night, and you’ve just clocked 12 hours and you are still worrying about what needs to be done in the morning, wine is a grown-up Rescue Remedy; a Nurofen for stress – but with some serious side effects. The comfort, the lack of anxiety, the relaxed shoulders of the night before are long gone the following morning. I wake to a hangover of irritation, anxiety, paranoia and, if really bad, an existential crisis that I’m living in the wrong city, with the wrong job and the wrong set of priorities. The same friend who stroked your hair soothingly last night is now pulling out tangles. You don’t feel yourself, nothing seems right and any minute now, you are going to start crying.  And so you make it through work and then by 7pm, you absolutely need a drink. A vicious cycle begins. Your stress relief is as much your stress inducer. Your friend is your foe. Your crutch is a kick in the stomach. 

Wine is a grown-up Rescue Remedy; a Nurofen for stress – but with some serious side effects

Am I alone? I can’t talk about the hangovers, but British women definitely drink. An NHS study last year found that 53 per cent of the women they spoke to had drunk the week before the interview, with 13 per cent drinking six units or more on at least one day, nearly the double recommend amount. Anecdotally, I know lots of women who drink. Friends who share my story. Friends who invite me for wine after long days, anxiously ring me on hangovers or half-joke about the amount of wine they’ve consumed that week. 

Do I have a problem? I hope not. Should I cut back? Probably. Doctors recommend that we have at least two consecutive days off (a rarity in my case) – and I have no doubt I drink more than the recommended units. Will I stop? No. A glass of wine after a long day is one of my favourite pastimes. If we are a generation of women who self-medicate with wine to deal with our over-chaotic, over-scheduled and over-complicated lives, booze is not the problem*. Our lifestyles are. As Flintoff told Kirsty Wark: “It’s not so much the drinking – it’s actually the reasons why you are drinking.”

(*Obviously alcohol can be a huge, life-threatening problem with myriad health implications. But wine isn’t making me drink more wine. A high-pressured, fast-paced life is.)  

Of course, there are a whole host of ways to de-stress that don’t involve booze, exercise being the obvious one, but another one is being clear-headed, refreshed and not hungover. So, how do I maintain my craving for a glass of wine after work without the down, dark side?  

For a start, the best tip a friend ever gave: I’ve started adding a few extra sounds to that after-work kitchen percussion. Along with opening the fridge, I now open the freezer, too. There’s a rattle of ice and a hiss of fizz as I pour the glass three quarters full of soda water. It might sound stupid, but I’m still having the process: pouring wine, hearing those sounds, holding that glass –there’s just more water than wine. 

In the long term, it’s about looking at those reasons. My colleague and I have just implemented shift work, and I went for a swim at the weekend. We’ve all got enough things to worry about – I don’t want my drinking to be another one. 

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