The Link Between Alcohol And Anxiety

Updated December 23, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anxiety is a bedfellow to many other ailments. It can be the cause of a myriad of other concerns, such as seclusion and delusion, or it can be a symptom of another issue entirely, such as an issue within the gut. Certain foods and drinks can exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety, while others can aid in quelling anxious feelings. Alcohol falls within one of these categories and may be a key factor in understanding your anxiety.

Many People Turn To Alcohol To Ease Anxiety

How Alcohol Functions In The Body

Alcohol has a powerful effect on your body, impacting numerous pathways and functions your body uses to operate at its best. Alcohol is most known for its inebriating effect, but the entirety of the picture demonstrates far more than a simple state of intoxication. Instead, every bodily system has a different reaction to alcohol, and each system has the potential to adversely affect an existing anxiety condition or contribute to the development of one.

Your brain on alcohol is not able to fully communicate. The most readily demonstrable effect of this is difficulty managing speech—think slurred speech and mumbling, for instance. Underneath these visible changes are more damaging effects, however. Alcohol interrupts your body's ability to control mood. In a single sitting, this could mean that you feel spectacularly grumpy (or exuberant ) after having a drink. Over time, however, your brain may lose its ability to effectively manage your mood overall, leading to mood instability, irritability, and anxiety.

Alcohol also has a significant effect on the heart. Even imbibing too much in one outing can cause heart problems, including arrhythmia, stroke, and high blood pressure. Anxiety, too, can contribute to the development of high blood pressure, making heart issues and alcohol consumption companions to anxiety.

Other bodily systems and organs affected by alcohol include the pancreas, which is responsible for processing toxins and can lead to gut decline, the liver, which is also responsible for processing and filtering toxins, and your overall immune system. Regular cycles of feeling ill, out of sorts, or uncomfortable can also contribute to the rise of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder and general anxiety disorder.

Anxiety And Alcohol: Can The Two Ever Mix?

Alcohol for anxiety may be used as a balm, whether it is consumed as "liquid courage" on a first date or following a taxing day at work, as a way to relax. The tie between the two is not certain. Does alcohol usually follow anxiety, or is it typically the precursor?  Whatever the case, the science is clear: Alcohol negatively affects the body, even in small amounts, and can contribute to the rise and proliferation of anxiety disorders.

There are several factors to consider. For instance, not everyone who consumes alcohol will experience the onset of an anxiety disorder, nor will everyone with an anxiety disorder turn to alcohol for relief. Instead, there may be a link to the severity of anxiety and its root cause when alcohol is utilized, and there may be specific biological and mental factors involved in individuals experiencing anxiety.

How Comorbidity Comes Into Play

Can alcohol cause anxiety? Some pre-existing conditions may contribute to comorbid anxiety developing. Someone who experiences both Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and anxiety, for instance, may be more likely to latch onto the relief alcohol brings. Similarly, an individual with ADHD and anxiety might crave the (albeit temporary) relief brought on by consuming alcohol in stressful situations or following a high-stress event. Conversely, someone who has an anxiety disorder, but has systems in place to vent and relieve that anxiety, may be less likely to turn to the soothing effects of alcohol.

Individuals who consume alcohol as a balm for anxiety are more likely to develop a substance use disorder. As tolerance grows, the need for greater levels of alcohol increases, leading to increased quantities being consumed in a single setting. Consuming alcohol in this way can create a dramatic rewiring of the brain, which links alcohol consumption and anxiety on a molecular level. 

Does Alcohol Help Anxiety?

Yes and no. The assistance provided by alcohol is temporary at best and is far more akin to the proverbial "Band-Aid for a bullet wound" than it is to an actual aid for anxiety. Although alcohol is a sedative and can have a calming effect on the nervous system in the wake of stress, pain, or distress, the calm is extremely temporary, and cannot provide lasting relief. Instead, if used regularly, your body will require more and more alcohol to reach a sedated state and may even develop a dependence on alcohol.

Alcohol is not a truly useful tool in managing or suppressing anxiety. Because it alters the chemical function of your body, using alcohol to soothe anxiety may only create more problems, both mentally and physically. Dependence can happen quickly and easily if you are already prone to obsessive or addictive behavior.

Treating anxiety alone can prove difficult and can require months and months of therapy. The need for addiction treatment on top of anxiety treatment can create additional barriers to healing, and can prove costly, both in terms of money and time. 

Additional Ways Alcohol Can Lead To Anxiety

As if the biological function of alcohol were not reason enough to avoid imbibing if you experience anxiety, the mental distress created by alcohol consumption can also be problematic. Because alcohol can create a disconnect in your brain, leading to legitimate memory loss and confusion, a night of heavy drinking could create alcohol-induced anxiety the next day, as you work to replay what happened during your drinking session.

Many People Turn To Alcohol To Ease Anxiety

This is particularly true of individuals who indulge in heavy drinking. You may be far less likely to engage in foolish or otherwise troublesome behavior if you do not overindulge, but people who drink to the point of passing out or drink until inebriated are more likely to experience the fear and anxiety produced by alcohol-fueled behavior. 

Anxiety can also come as a result of peer pressure. If alcohol consumption is something you engage in out of a fear of missing out or being mocked, anxiety will precede your drinking session, will likely persist in the midst of drinking, and is likely to continue following your session. Drinking out of a sense of obligation or social pressure is driven by anxiety at its outset and can further complicate your symptoms.

Alcohol And Anxiety

Alcohol may seem to be a useful tool in an arsenal designed to combat anxiety and mitigate its symptoms, but it can gradually become an even greater liability. Over time, its consumption can create mental and physical barriers to wellness, including the onset of actual mood disorders and difficulty maintaining a state of peace and well-being. If anxiety is already present, it can worsen due to an imbalance within your brain. If anxiety was not previously a concern, it could develop.

If you’re experiencing anxiety, a substance use disorder, or both, it may be best to speak to a mental health professional. Of course, this can be difficult if you’re experiencing common symptoms like fatigue or isolation. In such cases, online therapy could present a viable alternative. This type of therapy can be accessed from home. Plus, you can chat with a licensed therapist in a more relaxed setting compared to a clinical office environment. 

Online therapy has been proven effective in treating anxiety among some populations. One recent study examined the effects of both online and in-person treatments on college students experiencing symptoms of anxiety. In analyzing the results, they found no significant differences regarding outcomes. 

Takeaway

Alcohol consumption can be a tricky topic; some consider it a harmless pastime, provided it does not violate certain boundaries, while others suggest it should not be used at all because it has far too many negative consequences. Whatever side of the issue you fall on, anxiety and alcohol can be inextricably linked and can prove dangerous. If a condition already exists, drinking has the potential to worsen symptoms and further progress your disorder. If one is not already present, drinking may cause its onset. Ultimately, alcohol should never be used as a balm or a replacement for therapy or self-care. But long-term recovery from anxiety is possible—reach out to a BetterHelp therapist today. 

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