Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Alcohol: How Alcohol Affects OCD Symptoms

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that affects 1 in 40 people in the United States. The disorder causes people to have uncontrollable, recurring thoughts which could lead to obsessions and repetitive unhealthy behaviors. These thoughts and actions could 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 people. Understanding how OCD and alcohol addiction interacts with one another could provide insight into whether you or your loved one relies on the substance to cope with the mental illness.

Are Alcoholism and OCD Related?

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. 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 and stress are likely symptoms of OCD, and drinking alcohol can temporarily decrease both 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.

There are other dangers associated with someone using alcohol to cope with OCD.

People who experience symptoms of OCD early in their lives, such as during childhood, are at a high risk of developing a substance use disorder during adulthood. The introduction of alcohol and its effects can lead to abuse of the substance to find temporary relief from their OCD.

Alcohol is addictive. When someone enters a cycle of self-medicating with the substance, that can lead to physical or psychological dependence. Alcohol produces serotonin, a feel-good chemical that causes relaxation and confidence boosts. Increasing the serotonin levels consistently due to consuming alcohol can cause a chemical imbalance that the body must correct. The body then relies on alcohol’s presence to maintain the newfound chemical balance.

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. Additionally, as people keep drinking, their bodies become accustomed to the volume of alcohol. People then must consume a larger amount 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 of the substance.

If alcohol is relied on for coping with OCD, then people should consider receiving treatment for their alcohol addiction and OCD.

According to the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, between 25 and 26 percent of people who seek treatment for OCD also have symptoms of a substance use disorder. Since alcohol is the substance most abused, the chance of OCD and addiction to alcohol occurring together is high.

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 is used to reduce anxiety or stress people feel due to their OCD 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 for OCD or another mental illness.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a prevalent mental illness, and alcohol is the substance with the highest rate of addiction and abuse. There are a few key points to remember regarding how OCD and alcohol are connected, specifically how the substance can affect the symptoms of the mental illness:

  • Alcohol can provide short-term relief of certain symptoms of OCD, such as anxiety or stress
  • When the effects of alcohol dissipate, anxious feelings or stress 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 for the substance, which can lead to addiction
  • When alcoholism co-occurs with OCD, treating both conditions together is recommended

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.

Are Alcoholism and OCD Related?
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