The Relationship between Alcohol, Stress, and Anxiety
For many people, alcohol is a go-to in times of stress or anxiety. It can help us unwind from an overwhelming week, and melt away the tension of the day. But when alcohol, food, or any other habits become a crutch to cope with stress and anxiety, they can actually make things worse over the long-term. It can be a tricky line to tread. On the one hand, we need and deserve pleasure, and it’s important to have practices that help us relax – particularly when life gets tough. But when these become a regular strategy for numbing out our stressors rather than addressing them, we can end up in a self-perpetuating stress cycle.
Understanding The Desire To Drink
Drinking alcohol is an extremely common coping mechanism for stress, because of its immediate, calming chemical effects. Alcohol suppresses the overworkings of the brain through the stimulation of the hormone GABA, which in turn decreases stress signals to the body. Alcohol also temporarily increases dopamine and serotonin: hormones that make us feel good. So it makes sense that many of us reach for something that quiets an anxious mind and makes us feel physically more relaxed ー at least, temporarily ー when the sympathetic nervous system (which is what puts the body into a fight or flight response) is triggered. In certain situations, a drink or two can help us cope with something extremely stressful, albeit for a short time. Drinking with friends, family and co-workers can often also strengthen social bonds, which we need to sustain us emotionally.
A Habit To Numb The Pain
However, prolonged stress and anxiety is a sign that the nervous system has become chronically activated, and when we reach for alcohol because we are overwhelmed, we are actually placing ourselves into a freeze state. This is a false sense of calm that means we aren’t dealing with the stress but simply numbing out from it. When we begin coming out of the freeze state, the overwhelming feelings re-emerge. Some people find it easier to reach for a drink again rather than having to deal with these intense emotions, but when you factor in the dopamine hit on the brain’s reward center, this flood-freeze cycle is how addictive habits form. And you don’t need to be an alcoholic to have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
When Alcohol Makes You Anxious
If the idea of getting through a week or a weekend without even a few drinks would feel like a struggle at best, it might be time to examine why and how you are drinking. You may have unwittingly entered into a stress cycle that means your drinking habit is keeping you in a heightened state of anxiety. Your brain can end up relying on alcohol to produce the GABA that inhibits stress hormones, so when there’s no alcohol in your system, these levels spike. And it’s not just in the aftermath, when the ‘hangxiety’ can be fierce, but throughout the periods between drinks too. Alcohol can actually heighten our anxiety, and interferes with other hormonal processes too, including building up a tolerance to dopamine一meaning we need more and more of it to get the feel-good effects we crave.
Sometimes it’s ok to lean on a crutch in difficult times. If a glass of wine in the evening helps you get through a tough few weeks, and you know you can stop when you want to, there may be no harm in it. There are also several known health benefits to a glass of wine and some other alcoholic drinks. But a healthy long-term relationship with alcohol all comes down to context and intent. Is it a “want”, or a “need”? Are you having a drink to enhance life, or to numb yourself out from feeling it on the regular? The less present we are with our emotions, the less resilience we have for the ebbs and flows of life. And the same is true when we rely on things outside of ourselves for comfort, security, and peace. If you’re reaching for a drink because you don’t want to face your feelings ー or if you feel that your drinking habit is turning into addictive, reliant behavior ー it’s important to seek help in understanding and treating the issue through therapy, coaching, or a support group.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: Neurotransmitters in Alcoholism; Neurobiological Mechanisms Contributing to Alcohol-Stress-Anxiety Interactions; Coping Styles as Predictors of Alcohol Consumption with Undergraduate College Students Perceiving Stress; Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism for Social Anxiety.
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