Alcohol and Anxiety: How Does Alcohol Affect Anxiety
Anxiety is a normal and unavoidable part of life. While most people experience only short-term, manageable feelings of anxiety, others deal with chronic, intense anxiety. This feeling can manifest in anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, or exist as a symptom of another mental health condition, like depression.
Because it can provide temporary relief from symptoms, alcohol use is common among people who have anxiety disorders. However, alcohol and anxiety don’t mix well. Frequent alcohol consumption can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety disorders and cause them to worsen over time. Some studies also suggest that chronic alcohol use can trigger anxiety in some individuals, or cause them to develop certain anxiety disorders.
People drink to cope with feeling anxious, but this is particularly common for individuals with anxiety disorders. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American, 20 percent of Americans with a mood or anxiety disorder also have a substance use disorder. While alcohol can reduce stress in the short term, the question is, does alcohol help individuals with anxiety in the long run? The answer is, admittedly, complicated.
Once ingested, alcohol acts as a sedative, slowing down the functions of the brain and body. Within a few minutes, this process can elicit feelings of calm and ease. Alcohol also increases levels of serotonin in the brain, boosting feelings of well-being and pleasure. These effects can be an enormous relief for individuals living with anxiety disorders, providing them with the confidence and composure in situations that might otherwise trigger intense anxiety, fear or self-consciousness.
These positive effects only last for a brief amount of time. Within a few hours, serotonin levels decrease or fall well-below normal levels. At best, normal feelings of anxiety may return or, at worst, more intense anxiety may take their place. This process can create a vicious cycle, where the individual feels compelled to drink more frequently to cope with their heightened symptoms.
While alcohol can improve anxiety symptoms in the short term, frequent use may exacerbate an anxiety disorder over time. This occurrence can happen with the majority of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
While it may provide temporary relief from feelings of worry or nervousness, combining generalized anxiety disorder and substance abuse can cause symptoms of the condition to worsen. Over time, individuals with generalized anxiety may rely on alcohol to find relief from their symptoms, and begin drinking more and more as they develop a tolerance to the substance.
However, while it’s clear that alcohol can cause temporary anxiety, the connection between alcohol use and anxiety disorders is less apparent. Research points to a correlation between heavy drinking and the development of certain anxiety conditions. A study conducted by scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and published in the journal Nature Neuroscience showed that heavy alcohol use could impair an individual’s ability to recover from trauma, putting them at a greater risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This suggests that an alcohol use disorder may also have an impact on an individual’s general resilience to stress and ability to process it. Other research found a correlation between chronic alcohol abuse and the development of panic disorder.
However, it’s possible that this connection links to genetic factors. Some researchers believe that there may be a genetic link that influences both a person’s anxiety levels and alcohol consumption, suggesting that the same brain mechanism responsible for anxiety symptoms also influences drinking behaviors.
Abstaining from drinking, especially after drinking excessively for an extended period, can lead to dependence and withdrawal symptoms. Anxiety is one of the most common symptoms of substance abuse withdrawal. Trying to abstain from alcohol use after forming a dependence can create a cycle of heightened anxiety and physical discomfort, followed by increased alcohol consumption to relieve these symptoms.
Alcoholism treatment involves going through detoxification to remove the physical presence of alcohol from the patient’s body. Following detox, people often enter inpatient rehab. However, the specific level of care someone experiences can vary based on the severity of their addiction, their family’s history with addiction and mental illness, and whether they have experienced rehab before.
If professional help is needed, it’s crucial to receive care from a professional treatment center that can address anxiety and substance use disorder together, like The Recovery Village can. With full-service centers located across the country, The Recovery Village can help you or someone you love develop the skills needed to cope with the symptoms of an anxiety disorder and begin lifelong recovery. Reach out to a representative today for more information.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Substance Use Disorders.” Accessed November 28, 2018.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Abuse.” Accessed November 28, 2018.
National Center for Biotechnology Information. “Deficits in amygdaloid cAMP-responsive element-binding protein signaling play a role in genetic predisposition to anxiety and alcoholism.” December 2006. Accessed November 28, 2018.
National Center for Biotechnology Information. “Panic Disorder After the End of Chronic Alcohol Abuse: A Report of 2 Cases.” 2008. Accessed November 28, 2018.
National Institute of Health. “What’s “at-risk” or “heavy” drinking?” Accessed November 28, 2018.
National Institute of Mental Health. “Social Anxiety Disorder.” November 2017. Accessed November 28, 2018.
The Recovery Village. “Alcohol Detox and Withdrawal.” Accessed November 28, 2018.
UNC Health Care. “Heavy drinking rewires brain, increasing susceptibility to anxiety problems.” September 4, 2012. Accessed November 28, 2018.
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