Alcohol, Stress & Anxiety: Link, Affects & Risks

If you occasionally find yourself wanting to “unwind” with a glass of wine or cold beer, you’re not alone. When drunk in moderation, alcohol increases endorphin activity in certain areas of the brain which, when released, trigger feelings of pleasure and reward. For this reason, it is not uncommon for individuals to turn to alcohol to cope with everyday stressors, perceived threats and anxiety. However, while a drink or two may be just what many people need to “take the edge off,” excessive alcohol use can have the opposite effect. Extensive research shows that heavy alcohol consumption can take a severe psychological and physiological toll on the mind and body and may actually exacerbate episodes of stress and anxiety, if not contribute to them entirely.

While it is true that many adults drink alcohol responsibly, people who live with certain mental disorders, such as anxiety disorders, tend to develop unhealthy relationships with the substance. If you live with chronic stress or anxiety, and if you use alcohol to cope, it may be worth your while to explore the link between alcohol and mood disorders, the risks associated with using alcohol as a coping mechanism and better ways to manage your anxiety in your daily life.

The Link Between Alcohol & Stress

According to a 2012 study, alcohol abuse and anxiety disorders often go hand in hand. In fact, research shows that individuals who live with anxiety and stress disorders are three times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder during their lifetimes than individuals who have never been diagnosed with a mental health condition. But why is this?

Researchers have proposed several theories as to why individuals with mood disorders turn to alcohol to cope. Three are sounder than others but before we delve into them, it’s important to first understand alcohol’s effects on the central nervous system.

Alcohol is a sedative and depressant. When a person has his or her first drink, the substance produces a sense of euphoria and decreases inhibition. This short-term effect creates a perceived sense of relief from negative thoughts, emotions and feelings and contributes to the first theory: The expectancy component.

The expectancy component occurs when a person expects to get relief from symptoms of stress and anxiety by drinking alcohol. The problem with this is that the more a person drinks, the more tolerant he or she becomes to the de-stressing effects of the substance. To achieve the same effects of that first drink, a person will need to drink more and more until eventually, he or she becomes dependent on alcohol.

The second theory as to why anxious people use alcohol to cope is called the “tension reduction hypothesis.” Per this hypothesis, individuals use alcohol as a sort of self-medication technique. Instead of relying on prescription medications to control their symptoms of stress and anxiety, they have a drink, or several.

The final theory is that there is a genetic link that causes both anxiety and drinking disorders. More specifically, this theory postulates that there is a mechanism in the brain that is responsible for alcohol abuse and anxiety symptoms.

How Alcohol Can Affect Stress/Anxiety

Alcohol is not and should never be used as a long-term solution for managing symptoms of stress and anxiety. Not only can heavy alcohol use harm your physical health but also, it can take a toll on your mental well-being. When drinking, your levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters skyrocket, contributing to that “feel-good” effect. However, once your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) begins to fall, those levels plummet, making you feel worse than when before you started drinking. For many people, especially those with anxiety disorders, the plunge can be so significant as to cause symptoms of depression. The effect is what clinicians refer to as “alcohol induced anxiety/depression,” which can last for several hours or even an entire day after one’s last drink.

Serotonin levels aside, there is another simpler reason that alcohol worsens anxiety: Hangovers. As alcohol leaves the system, your blood sugar levels may drop, leaving you feeling weak, shaky and nervous, all of which can exacerbate anxiety. Additionally, to rid your body of the toxins that alcohol contains, your immune system may trigger inflammation, which may cause your body to feel sick even when it’s not.

Finally, heavy alcohol use can lead to withdrawal. As a person becomes dependent on alcohol for anxiety relief, so too does the body. As more time passes between each drink, symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may begin to develop. Withdrawal is unpleasant is often characterized by the following:

  •     Anxiety
  •     Agitation
  •     Increased body temperature
  •     Increased heart rate
  •     Nausea
  •     Vomiting

Though withdrawal is a sign of alcohol dependence and that one should avoid drinking for the time being, it can be uncomfortable, or even painful. As a result, many people who go through alcohol withdrawal also experience heightened symptoms of anxiety and, therefore, continue to abuse alcohol.

Can Alcohol Cause Panic Attacks?

Not only does alcohol contribute to anxiety and stress but also, it can make symptoms worse. A 2017 study found that persons with alcohol disorders and anxiety had higher clinical levels of anxiety than those who lived with just anxiety. Higher levels of anxiety put a person at a heightened risk for panic attacks.

Then there is the biological component of alcohol use. Alcohol causes several physiological side-effects, including dehydration, reduced blood sugar levels, increased blood pressure and heart rate, dizziness and irritability. Combine each of these effects with anxiety and you are bound to get a panic attack.  

Easing Anxiety/Stress Without Alcohol

It is evident that using alcohol to relieve the symptoms of stress and anxiety can be counterproductive. Fortunately, there are numerous ways you can reduce your symptoms of both safely and without having to rely on prescription medications. For instance, getting plenty of sleep, eating a wholesome diet devoid of processed foods and sugars, and practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques can go a long way toward reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety and regulating your mood.

It is recommended to start making healthier lifestyle changes to start regulating one’s anxiety. If you are in need of more support from a product, consider non-prescription options that do not have harmful side effects. Brillia for Adults is a great option to consider. It has a very unique active ingredient, while being gentle with no harmful side effects. You can learn how and why Brillia works to see if it's a good option for you. 

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