Understanding The Relationship Between Alcohol And Anxiety
You’ve had a long day at work and come home to unwind. Your heart rate feels rapid, still racing from the frustrations of a tension-building day. Feeling restless and irritable, your anxiety is full force, and you can’t relax.
In an effort to calm your mind, you pour a glass of wine. The second glass goes down smoother than the first, and in your alcohol-induced state, your anxiety symptoms begin to lessen — at least for the short term.
Before you know it, you’re four to five glasses into a bottle. You feel calm, relieved, and uninhibited. Relaxation mission accomplished? Not so fast — you may be trapped in a vicious cycle of soothing your anxiety with alcohol.
You're not alone if this sounds familiar to you or a loved one. Keep reading to learn about the correlation between anxiety and alcohol.
You could be developing alcohol dependence or suffering from an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Is your anxiety triggering drinking habits that have become a substance abuse disorder? Many people are just like you, and resources such as Sober Sidekick are available to help!
Let’s dive in to learn more about the relationship between alcohol and anxiety.
What Is Anxiety?
Everyone feels anxious sometimes. Anxiety is a normal response to stress in specific situations, such as a big presentation at work, an interview for the perfect job, or a deadline for a school project.
Anxiety disorder is characterized when feelings of stress, worry, and fear become consistently disproportionate to situations. Anxiety becomes excessive, difficult to control, and begins to intrude on your daily life, causing a negative impact.
How many people suffer from an anxiety disorder? You may be surprised that 31.1 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
When people suffer from an anxiety disorder, co-occurring disorders are common. A co-occurring disorder is a mental illness that occurs in tandem with a substance use disorder, such as alcohol abuse.
Symptoms of Anxiety
People experience anxiety in different ways. Below is a list of common anxiety symptoms:
Fatigue and restlessness
Racing thoughts and inability to concentrate
Excessive worry and fear
Inability to sleep
You may have an anxiety disorder if you often feel anxious and recognize any of the physical symptoms listed above. There are specific types of anxiety disorders, and a mental illness, such as anxiety, may be the root cause of your drinking or a contributing factor for substance abuse.
Let’s talk about a few common types of anxiety.
Types of Anxiety
The uncomfortable emotions you feel could be due to various anxiety disorders. Understanding the various types of anxiety may help you understand yourself better and explain why you experience anxious feelings often.
Below are three common anxiety disorders:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
The most common anxiety disorder is generalized anxiety disorder. Do you have general feelings of anxiety, distress, and restlessness without apparent reasons? GAD affects 3.1 percent of the U.S. population, and less than half of those affected are receiving treatment.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Does meeting new people or being in a crowded room make your anxious feelings soar? More than shyness, social anxiety can cause people to feel anxious before and during social situations, even prompting a panic attack.
OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)
The term OCD gets thrown around loosely, but it’s often misunderstood. OCD is not about strong personal preferences or behaviors, such as when you like to keep a tidy house with everything in its place.
OCD is a serious anxiety disorder that involves obsessive thoughts and behaviors that are difficult to control.
Examples of OCD behaviors could be checking your work excessively or worrying something bad will happen if you don’t wash your hands ten times in a row. It can be difficult to calm your mind if you suffer from OCD, and it’s common to feel misunderstood.
Other Anxiety Disorders
Other anxiety disorders include panic disorder, phobias, and Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD). If you suffer from frequent feelings of anxiety, consider getting medical advice from a professional to determine the root cause and see if you have an anxiety disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, and other treatment options could help.
Consult your medical provider to explore therapy, or see if a psychiatry referral to help you with mental health issues. If you suffer from a mental health disorder, such as anxiety, this could hold you back from addiction recovery.
Alcohol or Anxiety — Which Came First?
Which came first? Your anxiety or your alcohol abuse? For some people, an untreated mental illness, such as an anxiety disorder, is a key reason they started drinking or using other substances.
For others, what started as social drinking grew into alcohol addiction, the negative impacts on their life started compounding, and feelings of anxiety and a loss of control began.
Your relationship with alcohol may have stemmed from anxiety, or your relationship with alcohol may have been a factor in causing your anxiety. Those with untreated anxiety disorders often turn to self-medicating as an avenue to resolve their mental health challenges.
Self-Medicating for Anxiety
It’s not uncommon for people who suffer from serious anxiety to turn to alcohol, or other substances, as a coping mechanism as a repetitive, short-term fix. Some refer to this behavior as self-medicating.
Self-medicating (SM) refers to using prescription drugs or substances to deal with feelings of physical or emotional pain but without medical guidance from a health professional.
How common is self-medicating (SM)? The data is staggering, with one study reporting the prevalence of self-medication for those dealing with an anxiety disorder is within the range of 21.9 to 24.1 percent.
If this sounds like you, and you feel you’ve been self-medicating, you can get help with alcohol abuse by connecting with others that feel the same way.
Although overindulging with alcohol can feel fun at the moment, the next day can be anything but fun. Nobody likes the feeling of a hangover. Heavy drinking is known to cause insomnia, headaches, fatigue, and a general feeling of unwellness.
When anxiety meets a hangover, you have what some experts refer to as hangxiety. Let’s explore why hangxiety can be so intense and how it can make anxiety worse.
Does Alcohol Make Anxiety Worse?
Do you ever get the sense that your drinking is making you anxious or making your anxiety worse than it was before you started drinking? You’re onto something. The effects of alcohol can be deceiving, as the rush of dopamine from alcohol produces a “feel-good” response.
It turns out there are scientific reasons why alcohol can make feelings like depression and anxiety worse. Alcohol changes the level of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and GABA.
GABA and Alcohol Effects
Have you ever heard of GABA? When you’re under the influence of alcohol, one of the reasons you may feel a sense of calm due to increased GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).
Gaba is a neurotransmitter within your central nervous system. Neurotransmitters act as chemical messengers for your body, and GABA produces a feeling of calm. So if GABA is supposed to make you calm and relaxed, how can it make anxiety worse?
Alcohol works against GABA by reducing this neurotransmitter's production, which can cause GABA withdrawal. When you’re body gets used to using alcohol as a crutch and a coping mechanism to feel calm, it begins to rely on it.
Once the effects of heavy drinking wear off, the anxiety returns, and negative feelings, such as depression and anxiety, can feel worse than they did before.
This is one of many reasons relapse from alcohol addiction is common. The ripple effect of alcohol abuse can lead to an increased risk for mental health problems, such as an anxiety disorder. And heavy drinking can make existing anxiety disorders worse.
Without a behavior change, alcohol addiction and anxiety can feel like a trap, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re unsure where to start, join the free Sober Sidekick app to connect with a community of over 150,000 people, where you can find support, resources, and hope.
Alternative Ways To Cope With Anxiety
There are many ways to cope with anxiety besides drinking. Changing habits can be hard, but having strategies in place will help you find healthy ways to deal with stress and anxiety.
Also, having a community of support can be highly effective in your efforts to cut back on drinking or stop drinking completely. Did you know you can increase your dopamine levels naturally by implementing healthy habits as coping mechanisms?
Below are ways to boost dopamine and cope with anxiety that don’t involve drinking include:
Getting adequate sleep (between seven and nine hours)
Exercising (even 10 minutes provides health benefits)
Meditating (even five minutes can help calm your mind)
Recommended Allowances for Alcohol Consumption
If you’re wondering how much alcohol is too much? For some, any amount of alcohol is too much, depending on your level of addiction. For some, simply managing the amount and setting can be enough.
No matter your relationship with alcohol, you can decide today to get healthier. Let’s explore the recommended amount of alcohol.
Recommendations for alcohol use in adults limit one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. This is considered moderate alcohol use. Serving size comes into play regarding recommended amounts of alcohol use.
One drink is defined as a five-ounce glass of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor is considered one serving.
Self-Awareness and Anxiety
Being self-aware and in tune with your feelings is important to managing your mental health. Recognizing the signs of your anxiety will help you stay ahead of it and manage your symptoms, so they don’t manage you.
For those trying to quit drinking, or cut back on alcohol, learning to manage emotions and watching for triggers is a critical part of success with recovery from addiction.
One way to be self-aware and manage your anxiety is to ask yourself the following questions:
How do I feel right now?
What is making me feel anxious?
What are healthy ways I can stay calm?
What new things can I try to work on to manage anxiety?
Are there people or places that cause me anxiety?
What can I remove in my life that feels toxic?
Understanding the relationship between alcohol and anxiety is important in evaluating the cause and effects it may have on your overall health. Drinking alcohol may make anxiety worse, and managing anxiety is important for your mental health.
There are various types of anxiety, and seeking a mental health professional can be an important step in addiction recovery. Being self-aware and finding healthy alternatives to alcohol as a way to manage anxiety is important.
If you want to cut back or quit drinking alcohol, don’t do it alone in isolation. Join people like you who understand. Download the Sober Sidekick app today!
Mental Health Information: Any Anxiety Disorder | NIH
Self‐Medication with Alcohol or Drugs for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: A Narrative Review of the Epidemiological Literature | NIH
Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment | American Psychological Association
Anxiety Disorders - Facts & Statistics | ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America)