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FEMALE STRESS SYMPTOMS: ALCOHOLISM.

Statistics tell us that male alcoholics outnumber female alcoholics almost five to one in the United States, but, for several reasons, this probably does not accurately reflect the incidence of alcoholism among women. In fact, the ratio is changing. As greater numbers of women are working outside the home, their alcohol problems are becoming more obvious. As women deal with the stresses of what used to be a "man's world," their alcohol problems increase. Not surprisingly, so do those of homemakers who feel less and less support for their chosen role. More and more, women are seeking treatment for drinking problems. So, while alcoholism is not a distinctively female stress symptom, women must recognize it as an important potential response to stress.

Alcohol can act as both a sedative and a disinhibitor. Both functions can temporarily reduce a sense of stress. As a sedative, alcohol works like a liquid barbituate. At low levels it slows muscle response and induces a feeling of relaxation. As a disinhibitor, it affects the brain center for emotional behavior and allows the drinker to act out impulses with less guilt. The effect will vary depending upon which of the drinker's impulses are more guilt-associated. If, for example, it is your aggressive impulses that make you feel most guilty and stressed, a few cocktails may transform you into a woman who speaks her mind without hesitation. A few more and you may be speaking without consideration, forethought, or discretion, as well. If, on the other hand, it is your sexual impulses that are ordinarily repressed, you might find yourself dancing on the piano after a few drinks. A stoic may become a crying drinker; an "earthmother" type may become a teenager reborn.

The problem with this elixir of relaxation and disinhibition is that moderation is difficult. Since the effects of alcohol are achieved by altering judgment, alcohol abuse is difficult to avoid. If one drink makes us feel good, we reason, two drinks will make us feel better. Right? Actually, as alcohol consumption increases, motor coordination is impaired, drowsiness progresses into drunkenness, and memory is diminished. We eventually sleep, but dreaming is suppressed

and our intestines are affected. The day after is rarely worth the night before. Stresses have not been altered, and in addition our capacity to deal with them has been lowered.

At what point does alcohol use become alcohol abuse? The following brief summary is drawn from the definitions set forth by the World Health Organization, the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry (Second Edition), and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Frequent intoxication or drunkenness (four times per year or more).

Habitual use (drinks at dinner having an effect more than once a week).

Compulsive drinking (without real choice or control, or out of fear of not being armed with a drink).

Addiction (characterized by withdrawal symptoms, such as tremors, seizures, disorientation, or hallucinations).

Vocational, social, or physical impairment related to alcohol consumption.

When signs like these are present, the drinker is confronted with two problems: the original stresses and the alcohol abuse they have triggered. Both problems must be treated, and professional help is usually vital. Group therapy, family therapy, or individual therapy, with a trained psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, nurse, or Alcoholics Anonymous leader all seem to work if the patient is motivated and the therapist is supportive and caring.

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