Since alcohol is a sedative and depressant, it can seem at first like a couple of drinks help calm your anxiety. But drinking to reduce anxious feelings may end up worsening mental health issues. Alcohol use can lead to higher anxiety levels, both short- and long-term, creating a cycle of dependency that continues to reinforce both anxiety and alcohol use over time.
THE EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL ON YOUR BRAIN
When the alcohol from that drink reaches your brain, it activates your brain’s built-in reward system. This part of the human brain evaluates how good something feels and releases chemicals that motivate you to get more of whatever feels good.
Your pituitary gland releases a bunch of endorphins and the neurotransmitter dopamine. Most significantly, alcohol binds with your brain’s gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors and increases their activity. These neurochemical changes lead to that relaxed, euphoric feeling— alcohol + anxiety = ease.
Because drinking triggers these neurobiological feel-good responses, many people find themselves continuing to turn to a drink for that reward long after drinking has ceased to be a rewarding experience.
HOW IS ALCOHOL A DEPRESSANT?
Alcohol is referred to as a depressant because it depresses the central nervous system (CNS), the part of your brain responsible for taking in and processing information through the senses and controlling motor function, reason, and emotion.
When you drink, your otherwise very efficient CNS gets slowed down. You’ve probably witnessed this in people who have been drinking.
Here are some classic examples of the way alcohol impairs the CNS:
- Blurred vision
- Slowed response time
- Loss of motor control
- Changes in hearing
- Lack of inhibition
- Poor judgment
HOW MUCH ALCOHOL IS TOO MUCH?
Moderate alcohol use can be part of an overall healthy lifestyle, but sometimes consumption escalates to the point of harm. So, how do you know if you’re drinking “too much?”
The medical perspective
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) offers guidelines for alcohol consumption based on your gender and the number of drinks you have on a given day. Here’s how they define what counts as a standard drink.
According to the NIAAA, there are 2 main patterns when it comes to “excessive” alcohol use. If these descriptions match the way you drink, it’s more likely that your drinking will lead to harmful consequences, such as an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Heavy alcohol use
Here’s how the NIAAA classifies heavy alcohol use:
- For men, taking 4 or more drinks a day.
- For women, taking 3 or more drinks a day.
They define binge drinking as drinking in such a way that your BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) reaches a level of 0.08% or higher in the course of 2 hours.
- For men, 4 or more drinks in 2 hours.
- For women, 5 or more drinks in 2 hours.
Over time, excessive drinking can cause severe physical and emotional consequences, including but not limited to alcohol abuse. An estimated 15 million Americans have an AUD.
The personal perspective
But there are other, more personal indicators that your drinking may be an issue. Here are some of the most common experiences of people who drink to the point of causing harm.
- Drinking when you don’t want to.
- Continuing to drink despite the negative consequences.
- Finding it difficult to stop once you start.
- Being preoccupied with drinking when sober.
- Drinking to avoid physical withdrawal.
- Needing a drink to function.
- Needing a drink to function.
- Drinking often.
- Needing more and more alcohol.
- Binge drinking.
- Feedback from friends and loved ones concerned about the way you drink.
DOES ALCOHOL CAUSE ANXIETY?
Alcohol interferes with your brain’s neurotransmitters in a pleasant way when your BAC is rising. But when you stop drinking and your BAC begins to fall, you’re likely to experience depression and anxiety. In fact, the experience is so common it even has a nickname— hangxiety.
You may have fewer feel-good chemicals in your brain after you sober up than before you started drinking. It’s one possible reason you may feel more anxious after drinking alcohol.
All too often, people turn to substances like alcohol as a way to self-medicate critical mental health issues like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and social anxiety disorder.
On top of this, there are many possible causes and risk factors associated with both alcohol and anxiety disorders. These include a family history of AUD, early childhood experiences, social influences, and psychological factors.
To successfully treat both of these conditions, you need to consider alcohol use as well as anxiety. These co-occurring disorders can cause a feedback loop that perpetuates both issues. Because of this reciprocal, intertwined relationship, successful treatment plans must simultaneously address both issues.
Some people with anxiety benefit from prescription medications, like antidepressants.
Therapy is a valuable tool for many people seeking help with anxiety and alcohol use. This is especially true when it’s used in conjunction with other treatments.
If you want to improve your mental health naturally, consider prioritizing some of these lifestyle habits.
The feel-good hormones that get released when you work out are the same ones that get triggered right after you have a drink, making exercise a powerful way to take care of both your physical and mental health.
Sleep is when your body has a chance to heal and restore itself. That’s why learning proper sleep hygiene protects both your mind and body.
There’s a direct positive correlation between mental health and meditation—especially mindfulness meditation. In particular, meditation can help reduce anxiety and has been shown to help manage cravings.
- Drinking doesn’t improve your mental health or help with anxiety.
- If you have anxiety, you may want to limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
- If you’re having difficulty with your drinking, consider these treatment options.
- Medication, behavioral techniques, and lifestyle changes can help manage anxiety.