Alcohol and Anxiety
Anxiety and alcohol abuse are common co-occurring disorders that can cause severe distress and impair your daily life. Anxiety and alcohol abuse often make each other significantly worse. Alcoholism can exacerbate an existing anxiety disorder or may lead to new anxiety symptoms and vice versa. This means that a pre-existing anxiety disorder can contribute to alcoholism (as many people use alcohol as an unhealthy coping mechanism).
Alcohol changes levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which can worsen anxiety. In fact, you may feel more anxious after the alcohol wears off. Alcohol-induced anxiety can last for several hours, or even for an entire day after drinking. Using alcohol to cope with social anxiety disorder can be dangerous. With social anxiety, you may find social situations unbearable. It’s common for people with a social anxiety disorder to drink alcohol to cope with social interactions. Doing this can lead to a dependence on alcohol during socializing, which can make anxiety symptoms worse.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of dread, fear, and uneasiness. It is the feeling of worry about what’s going to happen. It might cause some physical symptoms like sweating, feeling restless and tense, and rapid heartbeat. Anxiety can be a normal stress reaction. For instance, you might feel anxious when faced with a difficult problem at work, before taking an exam, or before making an important decision. Occasional anxiety can be useful. It can help you to cope. Anxiety may help you focus or give you a boost of energy. But for individuals with anxiety disorders, the fear is not temporary and can be overwhelming.
Anxiety disorders are conditions in which a person has anxiety that does not go away and can get worse over a period of time. The symptoms can interfere with day-to-day activities such as schoolwork, job performance, and relationships. The cause of anxiety is unknown. Factors such as brain biology, genetics, chemistry, stress, and your environment may play a role. Depression is different from anxiety. Depression is described as a low mood that lasts for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks. It can range from low spirits to feeling suicidal.
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Types of Anxiety
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Individuals with GAD worry about ordinary issues such as money, health, work, and family. But their worries are extreme and excessive, and they have them almost every day for at least 6 months.
- Individuals with panic disorder have panic attacks. These are sudden, recurrent periods of intense fear when there is no danger. The attacks come on quickly and can last several minutes or more.
- Some individuals feel like they are having a heart attack. Symptoms can include difficultly breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, feelings of impending doom, and feeling like you’re out of control.
- Social Anxiety Disorder was previously referred to as a social phobia. This involves intense fear of social or performance situations such as public speaking. For example, a person with a social anxiety disorder may worry that their behaviors and feelings will be judged negatively by others or have an intense fear.
Is Alcohol an Upper or Downer?
Alcohol is a widely available and highly addictive substance. It is one of the most popular psychoactive substances, with most American adults consuming alcohol regularly. The difference between social drinking, binge drinking, alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder can sometimes become blurred, mainly because alcohol is socially acceptable. So, is alcohol a stimulant or depressant?
Alcohol creates different effects. For some people, alcohol creates aggression and anger and causes them to turn into angry drunks. For others, it can result in a calming effect. How alcohol causes someone to feel is unique to each body type, age, gender, and other factors. Because alcohol can cause so many different reactions, it can be challenging to understand what type of central nervous system reaction is caused.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) , alcohol produces both stimulant and depressant effects in humans. Alcohol can produce stimulating effects, but it is a depressant. Alcohol affects the central nervous system (CNS), impacting the way the brain communicates with the nerves in the body. These two seemingly opposite effects are central to the understanding of much of the literature on alcohol abuse and misuse.
The co-occurrence of alcohol and anxiety disorders is relatively common. The research found that 20% of those with social anxiety have an alcohol misuse problem. Alcohol is considered a CNS depressant, which slows down neural activity and brain functioning. Alcohol does this by enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). If someone consumes too much alcohol too fast, they can depress the central nervous system to the point of coma, respiratory failure, or death.
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Alcohol and Disinhibition
How does alcohol affect behavior? One popular notion is that alcohol causes disinhibition, or a release of natural impulses by eliminating learned inhibitions. For example, alcohol is used as a social lubricant at parties, which is evidence of this strong belief in the disinhibiting effects of alcohol on positive social behaviors. However, alcohol is also believed to increase antisocial impulses, such as aggression or risk-taking.
Animal experimentation often demonstrates that alcohol leads to disinhibited behavior, such as increased aggression, increased social behavior, or increased impulsivity. However, human experimentation demonstrates that alcohol can have either disinhibiting or inhibiting effects on behavior, depending on salient environmental cues.
Drinking to Quiet Anxiety
Anxiety is a disorder that attacks the central nervous system or CNS. It can increase blood flow, accelerate the heart rate, and push the brain into overdrive. In situations like extreme anxiety that need to be medically treated, doctors will typically prescribe benzodiazepines or benzo’s, as they are CNS depressants. However, the effects that make benzodiazepines helpful in these diagnoses are the same effects many experiences with alcohol.
Does alcohol help anxiety? In cases where a person cannot gain a prescription for their Anxiety Disorder, perhaps the doctor does not think it warrants a prescription or wants the client to try other methods to get their anxiety under control, the person suffering may resort to alcohol. This is also very common among people struggling with an anxiety disorder who either cannot afford therapy or are too embarrassed to seek it. While this may seem like it works in the beginning, in truth, the slight help that alcohol gives is short and temporary, and it comes with a great cost. According to the National Institute of Biotechnology Information (NCBI), alcohol and benzodiazepines generate anxiety, panic, and phobias.
Side Effects of Alcohol Misuse
“Hangxiety” has become a buzzword that defines the uncomfortable feeling that often characterizes alcohol misuse, but what does it mean? It is the feeling of being “on edge” after a night of drinking. It is also the feeling that “something’s not right” and being paranoid or flat out scared, and can’t explain why. This phenomenon is an example of an anxiety hangover, more commonly known as “hangxiety”.
Although even a heavy night of drinking may trigger anxiety, major withdrawal symptoms and bad hangovers make alcohol panic attacks even more likely. Hangovers can also add to stress if a person can’t function or has to miss school or work.
If it’s a severe hangover, a person can experience:
- Elevated heart rate
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Alcohol Use Disorders and Anxiety Disorders
A substantial number of people who have problems with alcohol also experience strong anxiety and mood problems. From the psychological perspective, behavioral research demonstrates that drinking to cope with negative affect is a potent indicator for current and future problems with alcohol . Neuroscientific research implicates overlapping neurobiological systems and psychological processes in promoting the rise of negative affect and alcohol misuse.
Research has shown that up to 50% of individuals receiving treatment for problematic alcohol use also met diagnostic criteria for one or more anxiety disorders. This percentage can be compared with the prevalence of current (within the past 12 months) anxiety disorders in the U.S. community, which is estimated to be 11%. Regardless of which came first, having a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder or an alcohol use disorder could cause the other disorder to occur.
Can Alcohol Cause Anxiety?
The long-term consequences of alcohol abuse can be a variety of health problems, including mental health disorders. Research shows that people with alcoholism find it difficult to recover from traumatic events. This is possible because of the effects of alcohol abuse, which can actually change brain activity.
Long-term heavy drinkers may be predisposed to developing an anxiety disorder. However, there is no evidence that moderate drinking will cause anxiety. Alcohol withdrawal and anxiety are deeply linked. Increased anxiety is also a symptom of alcohol withdrawal. If you’ve consumed alcohol in large amounts for a long period of time and suddenly stop drinking, your anxiety can be aggravated by the side effects of alcohol withdrawal.
How Does Alcohol Worsen Anxiety?
Alcohol shifts the serotonin levels and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which can worsen anxiety. In fact, you may feel more anxious after the alcohol wears off. If you drink excessively for long enough, alcohol will begin to alter your brain chemistry. Otherwise healthy people can begin to develop anxiety disorders after long-term use. You may start to experience alcohol-induced anxiety which can last for hours or even an entire day after drinking. It’s that next day jittery feeling and a racing heart that you just can’t shake.
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How to Prevent Alcohol Causing or Worsening Anxiety?
Quitting drinking is the obvious answer. It is always a challenging task, even if you were more of a casual drinker than an alcoholic. Alcohol’s ability to replace normal stress coping causes it to interfere with your ability to respond in a healthy way with anxiety and stress, to the point where when you suffer from any anxiety it feels much more severe than it would if you hadn’t had alcohol. This can even affect those that never intentionally used alcohol to cope with stress.
The following are important as ways to prevent alcohol from causing too much anxiety:
Create a Support Network You need to have people you’re accountable to, and you need to have those you can call if you feel anxious. These need to be people that you don’t mind sharing all of your thoughts with.
Stay Active Boredom is the enemy of both sobriety and anxiety. When you’re bored, your mind tends to focus too much on your stresses and your anxiety, and with nothing better to do, you may find yourself looking for unhealthy outlets or letting your stress run wild.
Find Replacement Coping Strategies Remember, stress coping is a mindset and a mental ability. So in a way, it’s hard to find true coping replacements. What you need to do is learn to overcome it mentally, which is something that takes practice. But until then, you can still find activities that make it easier to cope. Activities like exercise, and playing sports can all be beneficial.
If you or your loved one are using alcohol as a self-medicating measure, you might feel that it “works” to help you cope with your alcohol and anxiety disorders symptoms. However, while you might feel that it works in the short term, it’s more likely to cause you problems in the long run. If you have an anxiety disorder, alcohol withdrawal and anxiety can make your symptoms worse.
If you or your loved one have anxiety and are using alcohol to cope, it’s important that you seek support from your doctor or mental health professional. It’s never too late to reach out for help if you are trying to cope with co-occurring mental health conditions and substance use disorders.
There are many effective treatments for anxiety and alcohol use disorders, including medically-assisted detox, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Medication-assisted Treatment, and Dual Diagnosis Treatment.
Does alcohol help anxiety? The answer is “no” If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol and anxiety disorder, get them the safest help they need and deserve. Our team at We Level Up NJ specializes in creating an ideal environment and providing effective therapies
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 NCBI – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860396/
 NCBI – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21560041/
  NCBI – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1295099/
 NIAAA – https://arcr.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-use-disorder-and-co-occurring-mental-health-conditions/co-occurring-alcohol-use-disorder-anxiety