Anxious for Relief: The Connection between Alcohol and Anxiety
We’ve all heard a friend or family member say that they’re going to drink a beer or a glass of wine to relax. You might have even turned to alcohol to calm your nerves or to help cope with a situation that was making you anxious. But does alcohol actually help combat anxiety? Alcohol and anxiety can be a deadly combination, with the temporary fix alcohol provides, but in the long-term it only makes anxiety worsen.
Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety can be a normal part of life, and in some situations, anxiety can even be helpful. You may feel nervous walking around in the dark, so your anxiety causes you to be alert and aware of your surroundings. If you’re nervous about an upcoming bill that needs to be paid, you might cut back on spending to ensure you have enough money to cover the bill. This type of anxiety isn’t typically a problem and it goes away when the situation is resolved.
When anxiety is more than just a temporary condition, it begins to affect everyday life, it may be the result of an anxiety or panic disorder. With anxiety disorders, symptoms can be intense and prolonged, affecting your ability to do what you have to do throughout the day. Symptoms of anxiety can include:
difficulty with concentration
changes in sleep patterns
unusual fears that don’t fit the situation
shakiness or trembling
feelings of impending doom
avoidance of particular situations that trigger anxiety or panic
chest pain or heart palpitations
shortness of breath
Anxiety disorders can be debilitating, affecting one’s ability to work, go to school, raise a family, engage in recreational activities and participate in community life.
The Alcohol and Anxiety Connection
Alcohol is acts as a central nervous system depressant. This means that it can have a sedative effect, causing you to become calm and relaxed after having a drink. Alcohol can also produce a sense of euphoria, which can also provide relief from the symptoms of anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety and Alcohol Use
Generalized anxiety disorder involves chronic and excessive worrying about everyday life. The worries don’t relate to one specific issue and can occur for several hours each day.
Individuals with GAD might turn to alcohol to get through each day in order. This may manifest as needing a few glasses of wine or a couple of beers after work to be able to unwind in the evening. In more severe classes, individuals may spend most of their day drinking as a way to alleviate symptoms or they may begin combining alcohol anti-anxiety medications to increase the sedative properties, which is a perilous practice.
Social Anxiety and Alcohol Use
Unlike generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety is specific to just social interactions. An individual might have irrational worries about being embarrassed or humiliated, saying something stupid, or not knowing what to say at all. They may be unable to participate in social interactions and may instead become isolated.
For those with social anxiety disorder, sometimes drinking occurs to allow the person to relax during social interactions. It often lowers inhibitions just enough that the person can tolerate the social situation for brief periods of time. Unfortunately, this often results in the individual avoiding all social activities where alcohol isn’t present or drinking excessively as a way to cope with outings.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Alcohol Use
Post-traumatic stress disorder is often associated with military personnel that have been in combat, although anyone who has experienced a traumatic event, such as witnessing the violent or unexpected death of a loved one, being raped, abused, or assaulted, or surviving a major car accident, fire, or natural disaster can develop PTSD. Additionally, victims of domestic violence or child abuse can develop PTSD, in addition to children of parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Those with the condition can develop panic and intrusive thoughts when reminders of the traumatic event are triggered. Those with PTSD can also develop flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, feeling jumpy, and being easily angered.
Up to a third of individuals with PTSD begin to abuse alcohol, often as a way to cope with the physical pain of trauma, but also as a way to deal with anxiety and panic symptoms. The number of individuals with PTSD that develop alcohol abuse disorders skyrockets to nearly 80% among war veterans who survived trauma during service.
Panic Disorders and Alcohol Use
With panic disorders, the individual will experience sudden terror or feel like they are having a heart attack although there is nothing wrong with their heart. They often feel like they are going to die. Panic attacks often strike without warning and last only around 30 minutes. However, having one panic attack can cause you to go through your day fearing future panic attacks.
In people who recognize that their symptoms are panic rather than cardiac in nature, drinking is often used to numb the heightened sense of alertness, increased heart rate, and racing thoughts.
When Self-Medication Backfires
Unfortunately, alcohol is a common form of self-medication for those suffering from anxiety disorders. While alcohol initially has a sedating and anti-anxiety effect, self-medication with alcohol is a strategy that often backfires.
One side effect of alcohol is that extended or prolonged use of the drug can cause or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety several hours after consumption. Frequent alcohol use can also cause a “rewiring” of the brain, making the person more susceptible to anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions. In those with pre-existing anxiety disorders, this risk increases. Therefore, self-medication with alcohol to reduce anxiety symptoms often leads to a loop of increased anxiety from alcohol use, causing the individual to drink even more in an attempt to alleviate the increasing symptoms.
Finally, alcohol use or abuse can actually increase the risk of traumatic events, such as assault, car accidents or rape. This can lead to the development of PTSD, further continuing the anxiety and alcohol abuse cycle.
Signs of Alcohol Abuse
Often, the first stage of alcohol abuse is intoxication – also known as being drunk. When a person is intoxicated, they often have lowered inhibition levels, causing them to engage in risky behaviors they would otherwise not participate in. In addition, their speech may be slurred, they may have difficulty with motor functions, including walking or using the restroom, and they may have memory issues or black out. Intoxicated people also often have impaired judgment, making them unable to drive safely or fully consent to sexual or physical activities.
When alcohol is frequently used, an individual will likely develop tolerance and require increasing levels of alcohol to achieve the same effects as they previously attained with one drink. With increasing tolerance often comes dependence, and ultimately addiction. Signs of alcohol addiction include:
Strong cravings to drink, even despite knowing that it is harmful
Being unable to limit one’s alcohol consumption
Combining alcohol with medications or illicit drugs
Drinking more or longer than one intends to drink
Being unable to work, go to school, participate in recreational activities, or meet family obligations due to drinking.
Being unable to pay bills or meet financial obligations due to spending too much money on alcohol
A preoccupation with drinking and constantly thinking about your next drink
Continuing to drink even if it makes you feel depressed, angry, or anxious
Engaging in risky or harmful behaviors while drinking, including driving, unsafe sex, or violence
Avoiding social gatherings that do not involve alcohol
Hiding how much you’re drinking
Becoming isolated from family or friends
Experiencing legal issues because of behaviors done while drunk
Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
Liver, cardiovascular, or brain damage because of alcohol use
Alcoholism & Anxiety: Dual Diagnosis
It is important to understand that alcoholism, like anxiety, is a disease that can have significant and long-term affects on your body, your relationships, and your life. If you are using alcohol as a way to cope with symptoms of anxiety, a high-quality dual diagnosis rehab facility can provide treatment for both your alcoholism and your anxiety disorder. Dual diagnosis treatment can give you the tools necessary to detox from alcohol and manage your mental health without turning to self-medication.
This holistic approach emphasizes the importance of addressing you as a whole person, rather than just treating your alcoholism. After all, if your anxiety and mental health aren’t addressed, it is likely that you will again turn to self-medication.
During your treatment process, you will have the option of therapies that include meditation, acupuncture, massage, yoga, group counseling, physical exercise, individual psychotherapy, art therapy, and outdoor activities. These treatment options are backed by research as being effective for treating anxiety in a safe and healthy way.
If you or someone you know is currently using alcohol as a way to cope with symptoms of anxiety or panic disorders, the most important thing you can do is to take the first step and call for help. Getting treatment can help get you on the path to a clean and sober life with the tools necessary to overcome the symptoms of your anxiety.