After a long and stressful day, it’s tempting to unwind and crack open a beer or take the cork off a bottle of wine. Although it may calm your nerves momentarily, drinking alcohol, especially in excess over an extended period, can worsen your anxiety.
Alcohol consumption can have severe consequences if you’re undergoing treatment for anxiety. Although having a drink may seem like a good way to ease your anxiety, it’s likely doing more harm than good.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, and it affects more than 40 million people each year, translating to 18.1 percent of the population. The astounding figures leave us understanding the urge to drink and ease some of the tension millions of us experience.
Generalized anxiety disorder affects 6.8 million adults, which is 3.1 percent of the population, while panic disorder affects six million adults or 2.7 percent of the population. Unfortunately, most struggling with these conditions will not seek out the help they need, and they might turn to alcohol to self-medicate.
Unwinding With Alcohol
Although there’s some truth to the fact that alcohol reduces stress, that doesn’t mean it’s the right truth. Alcohol is a depressant and a sedative that affects the central nervous system (CNS), so at first, drinking will reduce fears and take your mind off of your troubles. It can also help you to feel less shy and boost your mood, making you feel relaxed. The effects are similar to anti-anxiety medications.
The occasional glass of wine or beer to unwind isn’t always dangerous, as long as your doctor approves. However, once you start drinking, your tolerance will grow, and you’ll need more to experience the de-stressing effects alcohol provides, making stress and anxiety more challenging to cope with.
Excessive alcohol consumption can also have noticeable mental and physical consequences. As you continue drinking over time, consuming too much alcohol can lead to memory loss, blackouts, and even brain damage, especially if it causes other severe health problems like liver damage. The issues can cause more anxiety as you try to cope with the symptoms.
The relaxation you experience when drinking is attributed to blood alcohol content (BAC) in your body. When your blood alcohol content rises, it leads to temporary feelings of excitement, but feelings of depression can take over once BAC falls. As a result, having a few more drinks to make your BAC rise and then fall back to normal can leave you feeling more anxious than you were before.
How Does Alcohol Worsen Anxiety?
Consuming alcohol changes the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in your brain, often worsening anxiety. It’s common to feel more anxious once the alcohol in your system wears off. Alcohol-induced anxiety isn’t brief; it can come on for several hours after you’ve stopped drinking and linger for a day.
Relying on alcohol to cope with social anxiety is dangerous, and an estimated seven percent of people in the United States struggle with this form of anxiety. A person with social anxiety will find social situations overwhelming, and it’s common for them to use alcohol to cope with social interactions. Doing so can lead to a dependence on alcohol for any social interaction, which will eventually make the symptoms worse. The individual will rely on alcohol for all social interactions, potentially leading to addiction.
Nearly 20 percent of those with social anxiety disorder struggle with alcohol dependence. Besides needing a drink to feel comfortable around people, other signs of dependence include:
- The inability to stop drinking once they’ve started
- Needing alcohol in the morning to get their day started
- Drinking in excess four or more days per week
- Needing a drink at every get-together
- Consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in a single day
Over-consuming alcohol can also cause hangovers, which will lead you to feel more anxious than you were. Other symptoms of a hangover include the following:
- Low blood glucose (sugar)
Does Alcohol Directly Cause Anxiety
There are various long-term health problems stemming from excessive alcohol consumption, including mental health disorders. Research released by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that alcoholics have difficulty recovering from traumatic events. It’s possible this is from the effects of alcohol abuse, which change brain activity.
Heavy long-term drinkers could be predisposed to the development of an anxiety disorder. However, to this point, the evidence doesn’t exist linking moderate drinking causing anxiety.
A symptom of alcohol withdrawal is increased anxiety. If you’ve consumed alcohol in significant amounts for extended periods and abruptly stop, your anxiety will be aggravated alcohol withdrawal. Depending on how much and how long you’ve drunk, alcohol withdrawal could be deadly. If you’re concerned about your safety, you should always reach out to trained professionals before abstaining from alcohol.
Other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include the following:
- Trembling hands
- Heart rate that’s above 100 beats per minute
- Delirium tremens (DTs) (In severe cases)
Do Not Look to Alcohol For Anxiety Treatment
Moderate drinking differs by gender and age groups. For example, in the United States, moderate drinking refers to two drinks a day for adult men and one per day for women. Since older adults metabolize alcohol faster, it’s crucial to limit yourself to a single alcoholic beverage per day. Before drinking, speak with your primary care physician to determine if alcohol consumption in moderation is suitable for you.
Although you may experience desirable relief in the short-term, the benefits of alcohol consumption heavily outweigh the long-term risks. These include:
- Liver disease
- Cardiovascular damage
Since alcohol affects us all differently, it can either cheer you up or make you feel sedated after a rough day. You should always discuss your concerns with a doctor to see if alcohol is safe for you. You should also keep in mind that drinking even the smallest amounts of alcohol can be dangerous if you have any of the following:
- A mental health condition
- Aggressive or anxious tendencies
- A low tolerance for drinking
Remember, alcohol is not an anxiety treatment. It may be nice to unwind after a long day on occasion, but it can turn into a daily ritual, which turns into something you can’t live without. If you believe you have a problem with alcohol, reach out to your doctor for help.
Traditional Means of Treating Anxiety
Fortunately, despite its widespread nature, there are various treatment options for anxiety. Treatment will depend on whether you’re struggling with social anxiety or a social phobia. Therapy could produce the best results to reduce levels of anxiety in conjunction with medications like Zoloft. If you struggle with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is persistent feelings of stress or worry without a specific cause, your doctor might suggest learning skills or behaviors that help you avoid activity due to anxiety, known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Your doctor might also prescribe other medications that include the following:
- Duloxetine (Cymbalta)
- Escitalopram (Lexapro)
- Paroxetine (Paxil)
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Diazepam (Valium)
- Lorazepam (Ativan)
Each medication treats anxiety differently. Antidepressants might be given to treat everyday anxiety, while benzodiazepines will be used to treat temporary feelings of anxiety, such as panic attacks. Speak with your doctor to find out which medication is best for you.
Some of these medications can adversely interact with alcohol, meaning you should take precautions before drinking. Speak with a doctor or pharmacist before using any of these medications since side effects can be either harmful or fatal.
Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Anxiety
Although anxiety can be treated, it isn’t always curable. Fortunately, you can make lifestyle changes to reduce anxiety and learn how to cope with it. The following are some lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your stress.
- Eat consistent and healthy meals daily.
- Sleep consistently and regularly, around six to eight hours a night, dependent on age.
- Limit the amount of alcohol and caffeine you consume since both can increase your anxiety levels.
- Put aside time each day to focus on relaxation techniques, such as yoga or meditation.
- Put aside time each day to engage in something relaxing, such as painting and listening to music.
You can also cope with anxiety and preventing panic attacks through the following techniques:
- Slowly count from one to ten or higher until the anxiety fades away.
- Breathe in and out slowly to calm yourself down if you start feeling anxious.
- Think positively when your thoughts become negative or overwhelming.
- Focus on happy or positive memories that make you laugh or feel at ease until anxiety fades.