Article at a Glance:
- Alcohol can provide short-term relief of certain symptoms of OCD, such as anxiety, stress or shame.
- When the effects of alcohol dissipate, anxious feelings can return and become worse than they were before drinking started.
- Using alcohol to cope with OCD symptoms can lead to numerous health risks, including liver failure or high blood pressure.
- The more a person drinks alcohol to cope with their OCD, the more likely they are to develop a dependence on the substance, which can lead to addiction.
- When alcoholism co-occurs with OCD, treating both conditions together is recommended.
OCD and Alcohol
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that will affect up to 2.3% of adults in the United States during their lifetime. The disorder causes people to have intrusive, recurring thoughts known as obsessions, which can lead to repetitive or ritualistic behaviors called compulsions. These thoughts and behaviors sometimes result in difficulties having healthy relationships or maintaining regular employment. Regular consumption of alcohol can heighten the struggles associated with OCD.
More people in the United States struggle with alcoholism than addiction to any other drug. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of Americans who struggle with an alcohol use disorder (14.5 million) is nearly double the combined total of people who are addicted to any illicit drug (7.5 million).
OCD and alcohol abuse frequently intertwine due to the temporary relief from OCD symptoms that alcohol provides. Understanding how OCD and alcohol addiction interact with one another could provide insight into whether you or your loved one relies on the substance to cope with the mental health disorder.
Table of Contents
How Does Alcohol Worsen Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
Alcohol disrupts how the brain communicates with the rest of the body. These changes to the brain’s communication pathways can affect how the brain works, which can alter a person’s mood and behaviors — especially the ability to change habits or routines and resist compulsive desires. For this reason, consuming a large amount of alcohol makes OCD worse. Even though alcohol can worsen a person’s OCD, the combination of struggling with OCD and drinking a substantial amount of alcohol is quite common.
Anxiety is a likely symptom of OCD, and drinking alcohol can temporarily decrease this feelings. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which means the substance is a sedative and often leads to drowsiness. Alcohol can alleviate anxious feelings in the short term because the substance produces higher levels of serotonin, which can boost a person’s confidence and induce a relaxed state.
When the effects of alcohol wear off and serotonin levels return to normal, feelings of anxiety return. A person’s anxiety could be more extreme than before drinking due to negative feelings about the money they spent on drinking or how they acted while under alcohol’s effects. Heightened anxiety can cause people who have OCD to face more severe struggles with recurring thoughts and obsessions.
Shame is also common in people with OCD — both general shame due to the stigma of mental illness and specific shame related to their obsessive symptoms. Alcohol addiction, similarly, carries a social stigma that can compound the sense of shame in a person with OCD.
Risks of Using Alcohol to Cope With OCD
There are other dangers associated with someone using alcohol to cope with OCD. Alcohol is addictive. Introducing alcohol and its effects to find temporary relief from their OCD can lead to alcohol abuse, dependence and addiction.
When someone enters a cycle of self-medicating with alcohol, that can lead to physical dependence. Consuming alcohol regularly can cause a chemical imbalance where the body is used to alcohol’s presence. The body then experiences uncomfortable or even dangerous withdrawal symptoms if there is no more alcohol in its system.
The brain also links alcohol’s presence to positive feelings about oneself and reduced stress or anxiety. When this psychological connection forms, people may desire to continue using alcohol to experience the same positive feelings, called psychological dependence.
Additionally, as people keep drinking, their bodies become accustomed to the volume and effects of alcohol and build a tolerance. They then consume larger amounts more often to achieve the desired intoxication level. Increasing how much alcohol someone drinks can lead to more anxiety associated with OCD. Alcohol blackouts also can occur due to the increased consumption rate.
If you or a loved one are relying on heavy amounts of alcohol to cope with OCD, you should consider receiving treatment for alcohol addiction and OCD.
Treating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Alcohol Addiction
In a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, roughly 27% of people who sought treatment for OCD also had symptoms of a substance use disorder in their lifetime. Since alcohol is the substance most abused, the chance of OCD and addiction to alcohol occurring together is high. Since alcohol abuse and OCD are both associated with high levels of compulsive behavior, each disorder feeds the other.
The co-occurrence of alcoholism and OCD usually requires medical assistance for treating each condition. Doctors and counselors refer to this as a dual diagnosis, which involves simultaneous treatment and therapy for both disorders. The treatment plans work independently but usually overlap since the two disorders are connected and one is likely to cause the other.
The specific treatment approaches for OCD include therapy sessions and medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and specifically a type of CBT called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), is used to reduce the anxiety OCD causes, by changing how people react to the triggers of those feelings. The medications people frequently use for OCD are anti-depression drugs, such as:
While certain medications can help with OCD, some can be addictive and lead to additional issues. Speak with a medical expert before taking any medication to treat OCD or another mental health disorder.
There are reputable medical services that provide treatment for alcohol addiction and OCD. The Recovery Village is one such option and has facilities in each region of the United States. A team of doctors, nurses and counselors will help patients learn coping mechanisms to manage their OCD effectively while building a lifestyle that is free of alcohol abuse.
International OCD Foundation. “What is OCD?” August 2021. Accessed August 31, 2021
National Institute of Mental Health. “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).” August 2021. Accessed August 31, 2021.
Burchi E., et al. “Compulsivity in Alcohol Use Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Implications for Neuromodulation.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, April 11, 2029. Accessed August 31, 2021.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Substance Use Disorders.” Fall 2016. Accessed August 31, 2021.
Weingarden, H. and Renshaw, K. “Shame in the obsessive compulsive related disorders: A conceptual review.” Journal of Affective Disorders. January 15, 2015. Accessed August 31, 2021.
International OCD Foundation. “Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP).” August 2021. Accessed August 31, 2021.
Mancebo, Maria C., et al. “Substance Use Disorders in an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinical Sample.” Journal of Anxiety Disorders, May 2009. Accessed August 31, 2021.
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.