The University Record, September 13, 1999

Women think, men drink: U-M study explores the link between gender, depression and alcohol

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Women are more likely than men to stew about how bad they feel and what they have done to deserve to feel so bad when they are upset.
When women are blue, sad or mad, they are more likely than men to think about their problems in a repetitive, unhelpful way. When men are down or depressed, they’re more likely than women to hit the bottle.

That’s one of the findings of a new U-M study to be presented Aug. 20 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Boston.

Psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema interviewed 1,328 adults (631 males, 697 females) ages 25–75, recruited through random-digit dialing in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, Calif., and interviewed in their homes. About 70 percent of the sample was white, 9 percent Hispanic, 8 percent African American, 6 percent Asian, and the remainder of other or mixed ethnicities.

Participants were asked how depressed they felt, and what they found themselves doing when their mood was low. Specifically, they were given a test to measure their tendency to “ruminate,” or stew about how bad they felt and what they were doing to deserve to feel this bad. Participants also were asked about problems they had experienced as a result of alcohol dependence or abuse, including losing a job or an important relationship. In addition, they were asked about the extent to which they drank to cope with negative feelings, to help themselves feel better and to deal with stress.

“The gender differences in both rumination and drinking to cope were quite pronounced,” Nolen-Hoeksema reports. “Women think and men drink.”

“But some men are ruminators and some women drink to cope,” she adds, “and for both men and women, rumination and drinking to cope are related.” In other words, people who do one are at increased risk of doing the other.

While alcohol may temporarily do an effective job of dampening rumination for men, Nolen-Hoeksema suggests that it seems to fuel rumination in women. Instead of quelling women’s worries, using alcohol to cope with distress just gives them one more thing to worry about, she speculates. The reasons for this are cultural as well as social and personal.

“In other research, I have found that women’s tendency to ruminate more than men is tied to their lack of power and the stresses that come with this lack of power in society,” she says.

“In addition, women’s stronger emotional ties to others, compared to men’s, may contribute to their tendency to ruminate. These forces remain intact even after a woman turns to alcohol to cope, continuing to feed her ruminations and in turn, her alcohol use.”

Women who use alcohol to cope may also face more sanctions against their alcohol use and feel more guilty about it, Nolen-Hoeksema adds, which only feeds their ruminations. “Men who turn to alcohol to cope, however, may be more likely to feel that they’re fulfilling their gender role by cutting off their ruminations. That is, men may get more negative social feedback for ruminating than they do for drinking, because ruminating violates male gender roles but drinking does not.”

For both men and women, she notes, the tendency to ruminate is linked not only to depression, but also to alcohol use. Therefore, both might benefit from therapeutic conversations that focus on more adaptive ways of quelling ruminations, such as working with a friend or a therapist who can help find effective solutions to problems, and clarify the dangers of using alcohol to cope.