Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders today, affecting millions of people of all ages and backgrounds. It is a condition that can be both debilitating and isolating, with many individuals turning to alcohol to help alleviate their anxiety symptoms. However, while alcohol may temporarily relieve anxiety, it can also be a double-edged sword, exacerbating the condition in the long run.
This blog post will explore the precarious relationship between alcohol and anxiety. We will examine how alcohol affects the brain and how this can impact anxiety levels. We will also discuss how alcohol affects the development of anxiety disorders, such as genetics, self-medication, and other factors. Furthermore, we will provide evidence-based information on coping without resorting to drinking to ease anxiety.
Does drinking too much alcohol worsen anxiety?
Drinking too much alcohol raises the odds of developing various illnesses and conditions, including aggressiveness, liver disease, and cancer. One of the potential health problems that excessive alcohol consumption can cause is anxiety. Excessive drinking can affect brain chemicals, such as serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which are responsible for regulating mood and anxiety.
So, these chemicals tend to deplete with alcohol use or during withdrawal episodes. Increased life stress and ineffective coping mechanisms might contribute to anxiety in those with alcohol use disorder (AUD), an alcohol addiction characterized by persistent and debilitating behavioral, psychological, and social cravings for alcohol. There is some evidence that leads researchers to assert that drinking less could reduce instances of anxiety in such cases.
Is drinking to relax and calm my anxiety symptoms a bad thing?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. When consumed in moderate amounts, it can have a calming effect on the brain and induce feelings of relaxation, temporarily alleviating anxiety symptoms. However, this effect is short-lived, and there may be a rebound effect.
The rebound effect refers to the increase in anxiety that can occur after the initial calming effects of alcohol wear off. While alcohol can initially suppress anxious feelings, it has been shown to have a rebound effect that can lead to even worse anxiety than before because of the increased excitatory chemical production. Lexine Stapinski, a clinical psychologist from the University of Sydney's Matilda Centre, refers to it as a “feedback loop… where anxiety is increasing alcohol use, but alcohol use is also feeding back and increasing anxiety."
This rebound effect can be particularly pronounced in people with anxiety disorders or social anxiety. Additionally, the severity of the rebound effect can be influenced by factors such as the amount of alcohol consumed, the individual's level of tolerance, and the individual's overall health. It is also important to note that alcohol use can have many adverse health effects and can increase the risk of addiction, withdrawal, and other complications over time.
Understanding the comorbidity between anxiety and alcohol use disorders
The common-factor model (biopsychosocial), the self-medication route, and the substance-induced pathway are the three main hypotheses to explain the significant association between anxiety and AUDs.
The occurrence of both conditions has been related to shared risk factors, including genetics and behavioral features like anxiety sensitivity. Comorbidity between anxiety disorders and AUDs is common, and research suggests this may be due to persons with phobias trying to self-medicate their symptoms.
Those with generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, and panic disorder with agoraphobia are more likely to self-medicate with alcohol than those without an anxiety condition. However, limited by factors including retrospective self-reported data and laboratory research assessing alcohol's anxiety-reducing effects, the Substance-Induced Anxiety Model supports the self-medication explanation for co-occurring anxiety and AUDs.
Regular drinking and risk for long-term anxiety disorders
Excessive drinking impacts mental health. However, research has shown that even regular, long-term alcohol use can eventually develop anxiety disorders. A study found that alcohol-dependent individuals are four times more likely to develop anxiety disorders than those who do not abuse alcohol.
Another study revealed that long-term alcohol abuse could cause structural changes in the brain associated with anxiety disorders, such as changes in the size and function of the amygdala, a brain region involved in the processing of emotions.
Alcohol use with pre-existing anxiety issues
Because alcohol can interfere with anxiety medication, people with anxiety disorders should be careful when drinking. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs for treating anxiety can diminish their efficacy if the person drinks alcohol. Moreover, alcohol can change brain chemistry and lead to elevated anxiety levels, worsening symptoms that may already be present.
Research shows that people with anxiety disorders are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol, such as worsening symptoms of anxiety and depression and a diminished response to therapy. Anxious feelings a person experiences may be made worse by alcohol use since it disrupts sleep habits. Without proper sleep, experiences of anxiety throughout the day and long-term increase. There is no "safe" amount of alcohol that people with anxiety disorders can consume because the effects of alcohol on mood might differ from person to person.
Hence, those with chronic anxiety should be cautious when drinking alcohol. Moderate alcohol use may not have an immediate effect, but it can cause mental health issues in the long run. Anxiety may be managed well without the use of alcohol if appropriate coping techniques are adopted in addition to medicines.
Strategies for managing anxiety without relying on alcohol
While moderate drinking in social settings may not be inherently problematic for everyone, there are healthier and more effective ways to cope with anxiety than drinking alcohol. Here are some evidence-based strategies for managing stress without relying on alcohol:
Exercise: Regular physical activity is known to reduce anxiety by easing tension in the body and promoting the release of endorphins, which are natural mood-lifters. Multiple studies have shown that exercise can improve anxiety symptoms in people with anxiety disorders.
Regular physical exercise has been linked to a decreased risk of premature mortality, reduced incidence of chronic illnesses, greater confidence, and fewer episodes of depression and anxiety. Exercising protects against the onset of mental illnesses, according to research.
Regular exercise reduces sympathetic nervous system reactivity by modulating stress responses and anxiety. Short-term cardiovascular activity and self-efficacy may lessen anxiety sensitivity and exposure. Anxiety is correlated with low self-efficacy, and physical activity may boost it by giving people a sense of autonomy. Physical activity offers the ideal combination of difficulty and diversion.
Mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness-based interventions, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, can help reduce anxiety by promoting relaxation and reducing negative thoughts. Regular mindfulness practice has the potential to consciously reorganize the brain, leading to an increased agency, self-awareness, pleasure, and decreased anxiety.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of talk therapy that helps individuals identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors contributing to trepidation and nervousness.
Studies have indicated that people with anxiety significantly benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy. It's a short-term program that teaches valuable methods to help people deal with their negative emotions more healthier.
Cognitive therapy (CT) often treats anxiety disorders, which involves recognizing faulty thinking, analyzing evidence, questioning and changing maladaptive attitudes, adjusting troublesome behaviors, and forming healthier relationships.
Evidence suggests that CT is useful for treating anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and various phobias.
Exposure therapy is a cognitive behavioral treatment for anxiety disorders based on emotional processing theory, which states that pathological fear results from an incongruence between stimuli, reactions, and meaning. In many cases of pathological anxiety, exposure therapy is the treatment of choice due to its extensive history of success.
Social support: Building and maintaining a solid support network can help individuals with anxiety disorders cope with symptoms. Spending time with friends and family or participating in support groups can provide a safe space for sharing experiences and receiving encouragement.
Social support might be emotional, instrumental, informative, companionate, or feedback.
Risk and protective factors for depression have been extensively investigated, and one of the most studied factors is perceived social support. There is evidence for bidirectional links between perceived social support and anxiety and depressive symptoms, and this has led researchers to examine perceived social support as a therapy moderator.
Researchers have shown that perceptions of social networks affect how a patient’s symptoms of depression and anxiety evolve in response to treatment. Improved social skills, increased awareness of available resources, and creative problem-solving surrounding the development of support circles are all examples of actions that might help alter public opinion.
Studies have shown that most patients benefit considerably from evidence-based therapies for anxiety and depression due mainly to the mediating influence of perceived social support on symptom improvement over time.
Proper sleep: Getting adequate and regular sleep can reduce anxiety and promote better mental health. Good "sleep hygiene" includes things like maintaining a regular bedtime and waking time, engaging in regular physical activity, avoiding stimulants like coffee, alcohol, and heavy meals before bed, as well as smoking, and keeping your bedroom cool, dim, and undisturbed.
Seeking professional help
If you're struggling with alcohol use and anxiety issues that you can’t manage, it's vital to seek professional help and support. These alcohol use and anxiety disorders can be challenging conditions to tackle by yourself. Still, your path to happiness and health can start today with the proper support and guidance to make positive changes.
Wish Recovery is a luxury rehab in Los Angeles that is proven successful with our comprehensive treatment programs for individuals dealing with addiction and mental health issues. Our team of experienced professionals can provide personalized treatment and support to help you overcome alcohol and anxiety challenges for lasting recovery. Contact us today!