The Link Between Anxiety Symptoms And Alcohol

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Anxiety 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 can contribute to the symptoms of anxiety and may be a key factor in understanding your anxiety. Learn how anxiety and alcohol use are connected and what resources are available to support you when anxious feelings arise.  

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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.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 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 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 feelings of anxiety.
Alcohol and panic attacks can go hand-in-hand for some people. Alcohol has been shown to affect levels of brain chemicals and other neurotransmitters, changing the way your body reacts to scenarios you encounter in your daily life. While a single drink can stimulate GABA and make you feel calm, heavy drinking can deplete GABA and lead to increased tension and a higher risk of experiencing a panic attack or other anxiety symptoms. 

Alcohol also has a significant effect on the heart. Even imbibing too much in one outing can cause physical symptoms that impact the heart, including arrhythmia, stroke, high blood pressure, and other symptoms. 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 a decline in the gut, 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.
The comorbidity of alcohol abuse and an anxiety disorder

Someone who experiences both Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, for instance, may be more likely to latch onto the relief alcohol brings. Similarly, an individual with ADHD and severe 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 a condition such as a panic disorder, social phobia, or other anxiety disorders, 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 with anxiety symptoms?

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 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 an alcohol dependence, thus creating a vicious circle that can be hard to break.

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 or years 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 induce panic and anxiety the next day, as the effects of the alcohol wear off and 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 negative impact of their 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 in social situations, 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.
Therapy for alcohol and anxiety disorders
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.

Treating conditions like generalized anxiety disorder
If you’re experiencing anxiety, a substance use disorder, or both, it may be best to speak to a mental health professional. Counselors can help you learn new relaxation techniques to implement when you’re feeling anxious instead of leaning on the assistance of alcohol.

Of course, this can be difficult if you’re experiencing common symptoms like fatigue or isolation, or if you feel nervous about someone seeing you at your clinician’s office. In such cases, online therapy could present a viable alternative. This type of therapy can be reached 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.
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