Article at a Glance:

  • According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 20% of Americans with a mood or anxiety disorder also have a substance use 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 they receive professional care that addresses both conditions simultaneously.

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. This is largely due to alcohol’s diuretic qualities, which dehydrate the body. Studies have found those who hydrate more have a lower risk of anxiety and depression than those who drink less water and that drinking less water was related to greater tension and confusion in the body.

Anxiety may also increase after alcohol use due to worry or guilt about behaviors and interactions that occurred while under the effects of alcohol.

However, while it’s clear that alcohol can cause temporary anxiety, the connection between alcohol use and anxiety disorders is less apparent.

Alcohol-Induced Anxiety & Mood Disorders

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 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. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, up to three-fourths of survivors of abuse or violent, traumatic events report problems with alcohol, along with up to one-third of those experiencing other trauma.
  • 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.
  • Other research has studied the relationship between chronic alcohol abuse and the development of a panic disorder, but more study is necessary to find a correlation.

Can Alcohol Increase Anxiety?

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 bring up 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.

Why Do People Drink To Cope With Anxiety?

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 serotonin levels in the brain, boosting feelings of well-being and pleasure (See: Effects of Alcohol). 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.

Anxiety After Drinking

These positive effects of alcohol 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 can happen with most 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% of people with a social anxiety disorder also meet the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence.

Generalized Anxiety and Alcohol

Roughly 3% percent of Americans experience generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) every year. 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 recurrent panic attacks, along with fear of future attacks or unhealthy behaviors designed to avoid panic. 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 may cause a panic disorder to develop. In general, research examining the correlation between panic disorder and alcohol consumption is limited and has produced mixed results.

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. Treatment plans that address both disorders in tandem are often called dual diagnosis treatment.

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 that can address anxiety and substance use disorder together, as 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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