Understanding Alcohol Use & Abuse
Alcohol is one of the most commonly used substances in the U.S. In 2019, 85.6% of people reported drinking alcohol at some point in their lives, 25.8% of people aged 18 and older reported binge drinking in the past month, and 14.5 million people aged 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder , the clinical term for alcoholism or alcohol addiction, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism .1
Alcohol abuse means that you use alcohol in unhealthy ways that impact your life. It involves drinking more than the Centers for Disease Controls Dietary Guidelines for alcohol, which states that people who choose to drink should do so in moderation. This means 2 drinks or fewer for a man and 1 drink or fewer for a woman per day. A standard drink is the equivalent of 12 ounces of 5% beer, 8 ounces of 7% malt liquor, 5 ounces of 12% wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits or hard liquor . Excessive alcohol use includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, and drinking while pregnant.2
A large proportion of people who abuse alcohol also have co-occurring anxiety disorders. Having either an alcohol use disorder or an anxiety disorder can substantially elevate your risk of developing the other.3
How Does Alcohol Affect Your Mental Health
The relationship between alcohol and mental health is complex. Alcohol can negatively affect your mood and mental wellbeing, your mental state can affect your use of alcohol and it may be that other factors affect both your drinking behaviour and your mental health and wellbeing.
Anxiety and depression are more common in heavy drinkers and heavy drinking is more common in those with anxiety and depression. Alcohol is a major risk factor for suicide ideation, suicide attempt and complete suicide. Over a third of people who have completed suicides in Aotearoa New Zealand had also consumed alcohol.
Why Does Alcohol Cause Anxiety
Alcohol affects the receptors and chemicals in our brain and body. When alcohol is consumed, the neurotransmitters that affect moods, such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, are altered.
Dr. George F. Koob, the director of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism , told Newsweek: “Alcohol initially dampens sympathetic nervous system activity, in part by suppressing the amygdala,” which is a part of the brain that’s capable of activating the stress response and causing feelings of anxiety. This dampening of activity in the amygdala leads to temporary feelings of relaxation and reduced anxiety.
However, the brain adjusts to these sedating effects and when the alcohol wears off, “activity in the stress circuitry is higher than normal,” which leads to greater levels of anxiety and general dysphoria, Koob said. Increases in such negative emotional symptoms are known as hyperkatifeia and include anxiety.
Bhatt said: “Alcohol can cause both physiological hyperarousal as well as psychological anxiety over time.” In most normal cases, our brains have a balance of inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters.
When alcohol is consumed acutely or over a short period, the alcohol works on receptor sites that activate inhibitory neurotransmitters, “essentially slowing down our brains, making us relaxed, feel calm or down.”
But, “in essence, for every action a drug or alcohol has, our bodies will produce an equal and opposite reaction,” Bhatt said.
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Social Anxiety Disorder And Agoraphobia
For example, a person with social anxiety might be afraid of going to a party where there will be many people they do not know. Even simply thinking about attending the gathering might cause them a great deal of anticipatory anxiety.
When these symptoms become overwhelming, the person might have an alcoholic drink to try to calm down. They might also consume alcohol at the gathering to feel more relaxed or less inhibited around others.
While alcohol might feel like a solution in the short term, this drinking behavior comes with many problems. When people use alcohol to relieve symptoms of a mental health condition, it can quickly become a crutch.
If they continue to use alcohol to help them feel more relaxed or at ease, they might eventually feel the need to avoid any social situations where they would be unable to drink.
Long-term alcohol use also often leads to tolerance, which is when a person needs to drink more to get the effect they want.
For example, a person might have started out feeling more relaxed after having just one glass of wine. As time goes on, however, they might find they need two, three, or more glasses of alcohol to get the same feeling.
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Sleep Alcohol And Anxiety
Up to 70% of people with generalized anxiety disorder say that they dont sleep well. Anxiety can make it difficult to fall asleep. But sleep deprivation can worsen anxiety, creating a loop thats difficult to get out of.
Whats more, alcohol negatively impacts sleep quality. Although drinking alcohol might make you pass out, it doesnt help you get good quality sleep. Your sleep cycle is affected when you drink, and you dont get the type of rest that nourishes your brain and body.
Therefore, its important to focus on sleep as an approach to reducing anxiety. But if you have an alcohol use disorder, you may not be getting the sleep that you need to heal fully.
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Social Anxiety Disorder And Alcohol
Social anxiety disorder makes a person have irrational anxiety during social interactions. The person may become restless and uncomfortable when in a place where there are many people. A person with a social anxiety disorder may become nauseous or dizzy any time they are in a social situation. The feeling is also accompanied by one feeling shy around strangers, which is familiar to most people. But for those struggling with social anxiety, the feeling is beyond being shy to feeling like they need to hide or flee the situation.
How Changing Your Relationship With Alcohol Can Help Reduce Your Anxiety
Self-medicating with alcohol to relieve anxiety trains your brain to be dependent on a substance. As time goes on, it takes larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the same effect of calm, and as our bodies experience withdrawal, the anxiety gets worse. That being said, we understand what its like to be in this positionto feel intense anxiety and have alcohol as the only available solution.
The only path to true liberation around anxiety, or any emotion, is inside. There is no out there that can magically fix the in here. If youre chasing that one-time freedom, please let me be the one to ask you: What if you quit drinking?
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Is There A Connection Between Alcohol And Anxiety
Alcohol is a common form of self-medication for social anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. In fact, about 25% of people with panic disorder have a history of alcohol dependence.
Not only does anxiety lead to drinking, and drinking lead to anxiety, but the two triggers each other into a spiralling cycle. For example, anxiety makes a person start drinking, which worsens their anxiety, which leads them to drink more, and worsen their anxiety further.
Alcohol causes anxiety because it upsets hormones, brain function, and sleep. When the body and mind havent had the opportunity to rest, a person may feel on edge and irritable. If a person is also taking antidepressants, which is not uncommon for people with anxiety, the combination of the two worsens the condition and can trigger a severe panic attack.
Long-term alcohol abuse can not only induce panic attacks but can also lead to PTSD. This becomes even more true if a person has an anxiety or panic disorder. Alcohol not only contributes to anxiety but rewires the part of the brain responsible for coping with fear. Because of this, a person will hold on to fear-inducing associations longer, and will have a harder time recovering from trauma.
There is also evidence that chronic alcohol abuse can lead to lasting anxiety, even after a person becomes sober.
Can Alcohol Trigger Panic Attacks
Alcohol abuse causes changes in the brain as the chemicals in the brain are changed as a result of alcohol consumption, especially in those who consume alcohol regularly, which could lead to anxiety and panic attacks. Alcoholism is a disease. A person may not be personally affected by it, but a person can catch it from a family member. If a person is a heavy drinker, the alcohol could trigger a panic attack. Panic attack is a sudden attack of intense fear and discomfort that could cause shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, and elevated heart rate. The symptoms of a panic attack could start within a few minutes of consuming alcohol and it does not go away until the person is completely sober..
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Alcohol Can Contribute To Developing A Mental Health Condition And Other Problems
- Alcohol contributes to many diseases, conditions, injuries and events that may cause harm to yourself or to others. This can have mental health implications.
- If you drink heavily and regularly youre likely to develop some symptoms of depression. This is because of the lowered production of serotonin in your brain.
- For some people, alcohol creates rather than reduces stress by stimulating your stress hormones.
If you dont have a mental health condition but are concerned your drinking is slowly depressing your mood or increasing your stress, you can lower your risk of harm and take charge of your drinking by using these strategies. Read more about maximum alcohol recommendations.
Symptoms & Types Of Anxiety
Most people experience anxiety at some point in their lives. In fact, anxiety is a normal response to a fearful situation or a stressor, such as the way you might feel before a doctors appointment or before an exam. In a perfect world, feelings of anxiety would generally subside after an upsetting situation or stressor has been resolved. However, when feelings of anxiety persist, you may experience excessive fear or worry that doesnt go away and doesnt always seem to be influenced by stressful external factors. For example, feelings of anxiety may be present in the absence of fear or a stressor. When these symptoms interfere with your ability to function in daily life as a healthy adult, it may be a sign that you have an anxiety disorder.4
There are several types of anxiety disorders that may manifest in different ways, depending on the individual, but all them share symptoms of excessive worry and fear. Common types of anxiety disorders include:4,5,6
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Alcohol Effects The Entire Body Including The Brain The Gut The Heart Sleep And Sexual Functions
Alcohol effects the entire body including the brain, the gut, the heart, sleep and sexual functions.
The mental and emotional effects of alcohol vary from person to person. This is dependent on how much a person drinks, for how long and if any pre-existing mental illness is present.
Often people with depression and/or anxiety turn to alcohol as a way to try and cope. Some people use alcohol and drugs to mask their symptoms or to help make them feel better, not realising it can leave you feeling worse.
The Experience Of Hangxiety
You might be experiencing it right now. The alcohol has worn off, and things dont feel so good anymore. You may be worried about what you said to people or how you acted when you were intoxicated. The worry might even be so intense that it wakes you up from sleep when the alcohol is leaving your system.
Plus, if you drink often and in large quantities, your body compensates for the depressive effect alcohol has on your central nervous system . This system takes in information from your senses and processes it. Its also responsible for controlling motor function, reason, and emotion.
Your brain may learn to make up for the depressive effects alcohol has on your CNS by keeping on high alert.
Its an adaptive strategy while theres alcohol in your system, but once the alcohol and its depressive effects wear off, your brain is left on high alert. This is another reason you may feel anxious after drinking alcohol.
Drinking heavily over the long term can cause disruptions to your brains normal chemical levels, leading to even more intense anxiety due to alcohol withdrawal.
On top of these factors, the common symptoms of a hangover, like dehydration, shakiness, increased heart rate, and low blood sugar, can cause feelings of restlessness and agitation.
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Traditional Ways Of Treating Anxiety
Many treatment options exist for anxiety.
Treatment may depend on the type of anxiety you have. If you have social anxiety or a social phobia, therapy may work best to reduce your levels of anxiety . If you have generalized anxiety disorder , an ongoing feeling of worry or stress without a specific cause, your doctor may recommend learning behaviors or skills to help you stop avoiding activities because of anxiety , or talking about your anxiety with a therapist.
Your doctor may also prescribe medications.
Healthier Ways To Relax
Take time to unwind and relax in healthier ways at the end of a stressful day.
- Do some exercise. This could be a class, sports club or simply a brisk walk.
- Practice yoga or stretching to unwind. Put on some calm music and move and stretch your body, gently and slowly. Breathe deeply while you do this.
- Listen to some calming music.
- Cook. Many people find chopping, slicing and cooking relaxing. Try a new recipe and make time to create your favourite meal.
- Have a relaxing bath. Use essential oils, candles and bubbles to connect and stimulate all your senses.
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When To Get Help With Your Drinking
Because of the immediate relaxing effects of alcohol, many people with anxiety and other mental health issues are drawn to alcohol as a way to self-medicate. And while it may offer some short-term relief, alcohol is not an effective long-term strategy for anxiety, depression, trauma, or other mental health issues. In fact, it can worsen all of these conditions.
Using alcohol to self-medicate is risky. Over time, your tolerance to alcohol increases, which means you need more and more of it to get the experience of ease and relief. Many people with anxiety are also prone to alcohol use disorder .
No matter how much alcohol you consume, if your drinking feels out of control, worries you, or worries those close to you, thats a good enough reason to seek help.
No matter what your circumstances, its never too lateor too earlyto reach out for assistance. There are many different ways to get help with your drinking, which means theres probably at least one thatll work for you. Learn more about alcohol treatment options.
Does Alcohol Increase Heart Rate Effects Explained
Have you ever felt your heart rate increase during or after drinking alcohol? For some, this is an uncomfortable short-term side effect. For others, it can become a chronic symptom of unhealthy alcohol use, and may be a sign of more serious health conditions. Below we will review how alcohol affects both heart rate and the cardiovascular system in general, and the associated health risks that come with it. While this topic can be overwhelming at first, understanding the connection between alcohol and your heart can ultimately help you feel more empowered to make healthier choices.
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The Cycle Of Alcohol Use And Anxiety
Ultimately, alcohol and anxiety can become connected in a vicious circle. You may:
Over time, this cycle can lead to alcohol dependence and worsening mental health.
In addition, its important to note that some people may be more susceptible to becoming embroiled in this vicious circle. For example, people who struggle with social anxiety may drink solely for the purpose of relieving anxiety in social situations.
Alcohol And Panic Attacks
If you experience sudden, intense anxiety and fear, it might be the symptoms of a panic attack.13 Other symptoms may include a racing heartbeat, or feeling faint, dizzy, lightheaded, or sick.
A panic attack usually lasts 5 to 30 minutes. They can be frightening, but they’re not dangerous and shouldnt harm you.
If you suffer from panic attacks, cut right down on your alcohol consumption, if you drink.
Alcohol has an effect on brain chemistry – it can induce panic because of its effects on GABA, a chemical in the brain that normally has a relaxing effect. Small amounts of alcohol can stimulate GABA and cause feelings of relaxation, but heavy drinking can deplete GABA, causing increased tension and feelings of panic.14,15 Panic attacks can occur due to alcohol withdrawal.
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Generalized Anxiety Disorder And Panic Disorder
Studies have shown a different trend of alcohol use in people who are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder. For many people with these mental health conditions, unhealthy drinking behaviors begin around the same time as symptoms of the disorder.
Researchers are not sure what the connection means. It’s possible that the initial symptoms of anxiety and panic are related to alcohol withdrawal. It could also be that alcohol use provides a mechanism for these disorders to develop.
People with generalized anxiety or panic disorder are more likely to develop unhealthy drinking behaviors around the same time that they start having symptoms of their anxiety-related mental health condition.