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.
Article at a Glance:
Alcohol has the potential to exacerbate anxiety disorders. Because of this, it’s important to keep the following in mind before consuming it if you have an anxiety disorder:
- While alcohol can provide temporary relief from feelings of anxiety or the symptoms of anxiety disorders, it tends to increase short- and long-term anxiety
- Alcohol use can be particularly detrimental to individuals who live with anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder
- Frequent alcohol consumption may increase an individual’s likelihood of developing certain anxiety disorders, including PTSD and panic disorder
- If someone with an anxiety disorder also develops an alcohol use disorder, it is crucial that they receive professional care that addresses both conditions simultaneously
Table of Contents
Do People Drink to Cope with Anxiety?
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.
Common Anxiety Disorders and Alcohol
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.
Social Anxiety and Alcohol
Everyone occasionally feels nervous or shy around strangers, but these natural feelings of apprehension can escalate to debilitating levels for people with social anxiety disorder. Because alcohol is easily accessible and can provide temporary relief from symptoms, many people with social anxiety use alcohol to feel more comfortable in social situations. This is perhaps why a social anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse often co-occur. Currently, about 20 percent of people with a social anxiety disorder also meet criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence.
Generalized Anxiety and Alcohol
3.1 percent of people live with the consistent anxiety characteristic of a generalized anxiety disorder. Individuals with this condition experience excessive worry on a continual basis, even when there is no external situation triggering this feeling of dread.
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.
Panic Disorder and Alcohol
Individuals with a panic disorder experience panic attacks. Some people with panic disorder may begin to consume alcohol to cope with their fear of future panic attacks. However, studies suggest that excessive alcohol consumption can cause a panic disorder to develop. In general, research examining the correlation between panic disorder and alcohol consumption has produced mixed results. Some clinical trials show that rates of alcoholism in people with panic disorder are similar to those of the general population, but others found them to be slightly higher.
Does Alcohol Cause Anxiety?
Drinking alcohol can alleviate anxiety for a short time, but it tends to increase anxiety levels once the initial effects of the substance fade. The is largely due to alcohol’s diuretic qualities, which dehydrate the body.
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.
Can Alcohol Increase Anxiety?
In short: yes it can. When an individual with an anxiety disorder uses alcohol to cope with their symptoms, feelings of anxiety, depression and irritability tend to increase once alcohol’s effects subside. This escalation of symptoms can be particularly severe if an individual forms a physical dependence on alcohol and begins to experience withdrawal.
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.
When to Seek Treatment for Alcohol Abuse and Anxiety
Medical experts recommend treating anxiety and substance abuse together especially when they co-occur. There are rehabilitation facilities that offer treatment for alcohol abuse and anxiety. Treatment plans will be provided by most reputable rehab centers to address mental health and substance abuse issues. Additionally, the treatment plans may intertwine with one another as certain disorders often co-occur and can be the cause or result of one another.
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.
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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.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.