This is the second post in our three-part series on anxiety. This article reviews the connection between anxiety and alcohol and discusses how alcohol worsens anxiety symptoms. Catch up on our first post discussing the five types of anxiety disorders.
With a racing heart, a mind that feels like it is running a million miles a minute and a body that hardly ever rests, anxiety puts all cylinders on overdrive. One would think that the fatigue that accompanies most anxiety disorders would be enough to make a person crash and get some much-needed sleep. But individuals who live with an anxiety disorder know the exact opposite to be true.
Rest and relaxation can be hard to come by when battling relentless worry and repetitive, unwanted thoughts. For almost every individual with anxiety, the goal is relaxation; the desired feeling is calm. To reach this coveted mental state, some individuals with anxiety rely on alcohol to mute the worry and ease the tension.
While effective at masking anxious feelings, alcohol as a coping mechanism can quickly become a risky move. Keep reading to learn how alcohol worsens anxiety and can lead to alcohol abuse.
Alcohol and Relaxation
Alcohol is a depressant and a sedative. So, by nature, alcohol can and does reduce stress-centered feelings and emotions.
Initially, drinking alcohol is effective at slowing the body’s engines and helping take the mind off of fears and worries. In this new, tranquil state, people tend to feel happier, less anti-social and – above all – more composed and laid-back.
In moderation, consuming alcohol can be beneficial, such as lowering one’s risk of cardiovascular disease. Moderation, however, can be a loose term since people have varying tolerance levels. Once the body builds a tolerance to alcohol, the many symptoms of anxiety can actually become harder to manage.
Alcohol may be widely accepted in today’s society as a relaxation substance, but using it as a crutch to relax and veil an anxiety disorder can serve serious consequences.
Why Alcohol Makes Anxiety Symptoms Worse
Alcohol fundamentally changes chemical levels in the brain and alters neurotransmitters. When alcohol is consumed, serotonin – a vital neurotransmitter that helps regulate appetite and digestion, mood and social behavior, memory, sleep and sexual desire and function – levels temporarily increase. This gives rise to the good mood that’s experienced.
In the long-term, however, excess alcohol use can lower serotonin levels and cause or intensify anxiety and depression.
Alcohol-induced anxiety can linger for hours or an entire day once drinking has concluded. In turn, individuals who live with an anxiety disorder and use and abuse alcohol as a coping mechanism often find that the alcohol becomes a main source of their anxiety.
Additionally, abuse of alcohol almost always leads to some form of hangover. Hangover symptoms, such as headaches, low blood sugar, dizziness, nausea and dehydration, tend to make already anxious individuals feel more anxious.
When an individual tries to detox from alcohol, the intense withdrawal symptoms – such as increased heart rate, trembling, sweating and even seizures – can facilitate very high levels of anxiety. Because of this and other dangerous side effects of detox, it’s important to have medical supervision instead of trying to detox on your own.
Alcohol Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders
A co-occurring disorder is when a mental health disorder (like anxiety) and a substance use disorder (like alcoholism) are present at the same time. Co-occurring disorders are complex, where one disorder usually makes the other disorder worse. With anxiety and alcohol abuse, anxiety doesn’t always come first. Sometimes, alcohol abuse can lead to the development of an anxiety disorder.
Researchers have long since recognized the link between alcohol and anxiety. For example,
- Individuals who live with social anxiety disorder can also suffer from alcohol dependence.
- Alcoholism negatively affects an individual’s ability to recover from traumatic events, sometimes exacerbating the symptoms of PTSD.
Because alcohol essentially rewires the brain, individuals who drink excessively may be more susceptible to developing anxiety issues.
When an individual contends with two disorders at the same time, it’s essential that they are both addressed and treated simultaneously. Why? The co-occurring disorders often feed off one another. If one disorder is treated, the other untreated condition could derail any progress made toward sustained sobriety.
Be sure to read the third and last post in our three-part series on anxiety where we discuss healthy ways to cope with anxiety. Catch up on our first post discussing the five types of anxiety disorders.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment at Covenant Hills
It may be hard to truly understand this right now, but anxiety and alcoholism are not as strong as you are. These co-occurring disorders do not have to rule your life forever. There is powerful, life-changing help and support available to you whenever you’re ready to transform the trajectory of your life.
At Covenant Hills, it is our supreme mission to help you get back to being the person you know is still inside you. Through our faith-based alcohol treatment program, your whole-body health is our top priority. We will guide you through the recovery process and help you awaken your soul and heal your mind and body. Learn more about our alcohol treatment program, or contact us for a free and confidential assessment.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of public Health. Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits. Accessed May 10, 2018. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/drinks-to-consume-in-moderation/alcohol-full-story/.
UNC Health Talk. Heavy drinking rewires brain, increasing susceptibility to anxiety problems. Accessed May 10, 2018. https://healthtalk.unchealthcare.org/heavy-drinking-rewires-brain-increasing-susceptibility-to-anxiety-problems/.