Alcohol And Anxiety – A Co-Occurring Mental Health Issue

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. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH) [1], 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.

What is Anxiety Disorder? 

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, and chemistry, stress, and your environment may play a role. [2]

Alcohol and Anxiety
Alcohol and anxiety can become a dangerous, self-perpetuating cycle.

What are Anxiety and Depression?

Depression is different from anxiety. The World Health Organization (WHO) [2] describes depression 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.

But depression and anxiety often go together. Feeling anxious and worrying constantly can make you feel low, and about half of people who suffer from depression also get attacks of anxiety.

What are the Types of Anxiety Disorders?

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.

Panic Disorder

  • 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 (SAD)

  • 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.

What are the Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders?

The different types of anxiety disorders can have different symptoms. But they all have a combination of:

  • Anxious beliefs or thoughts that are difficult to control. They make you feel tense and restless and interfere with your day-to-day life. They do not go away and can get worse over time.
  • Physical symptoms, such as a pounding or rapid heartbeat, unexplained pains and aches, shortness of breath, and dizziness,
  • Changes in behavior, such as avoiding everyday activities you used to do

Who is at Risk for Anxiety Disorders?

The risk factors for the different types of anxiety disorders may vary. For instance, GAD and phobias are more common in women, but social anxiety disorders affect men and women equally. There are some general risk factors for all types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Certain personality traits, such as being withdrawn or shy when you are meeting new people or in new situations
  • Family history of anxiety or other mental disorders
  • Traumatic events in early childhood or adulthood
  • Some physical health conditions, such as arrhythmia or thyroid problems

Effects of Alcohol and Anxiety

Alcohol functions as a sedative, so it can help the person feel more at ease. Also, it may make the person feel more socially confident at a party or help forget worries.

Alcohol and Anxiety
Anxiety makes a person start drinking, which worsens their anxiety, which leads them to drink more and worsens their anxiety further. It’s a never-ending vicious cycle of alcohol abuse and anxiety.

However, these are short-term benefits. When a person drinks alcohol, it disturbs the balance of chemicals and processes in the brain. The relaxed feeling a person may experience during the first drink is because of the chemical changes alcohol causes in the brain. Alcohol works by depressing the part of the brain that we associate with inhibition.

But these effects wear off fast, and the pleasant feelings fade. If people rely on a substance like alcohol to mask anxiety problems, they may become dependent on it to relax, which can lead to alcohol addiction.

A possible side-effect of this is that the more a person drinks, the greater the tolerance for alcohol will be. Over a period of time, the person may need to drink more alcohol to get the same feeling. Thus, in the long term, this pattern of alcohol abuse may affect mental health.

Self-Medicating Alcohol and Anxiety Disorders

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.

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) [3], alcohol and benzodiazepines generate anxiety, panic, and phobias.

Alcohol and Anxiety – The Vicious Cycle

A person who is suffering from anxiety might think that a couple of drinks will help them relax.

In fact, drinking alcohol can make an anxious person feel worse. Here’s an illustration of a typical cycle:

  • A person drinks alcohol
  • They initially feel calm as the alcohol affects the brain
  • They feel anxiety as a symptom of alcohol withdrawal as the body processes the alcohol
  • They may want to drink again to try to relieve their anxiety
  • But this only starts the process from the origin. As the initial calming effect disappears, the person can feel anxiety after quitting drinking alcohol build again as the effects wear off

Remember, the more alcohol consumed, the greater the tolerance will be. Over time you there is a need to drink more alcohol to feel the same effects. Over time this may negatively affect the mental health, resulting in a higher level of anxiety and depression after drinking. Anxiety disorder makes an individual start drinking alcohol, which worsens their anxiety, which leads them to drink more and worsens their anxiety further. It’s a never-ending vicious cycle of alcohol and anxiety.

The Reality of Alcohol and Anxiety

Alcohol can lower the levels of serotonin, or what’s generally known as the happiness hormone. As a result, reduced levels are associated with increased anxiety. Moreover, the body will ultimately build up a tolerance to alcohol, making it less efficient for producing relaxing and calming effects. Additionally, ongoing alcohol use can result in a different set of health issues and complications.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) [4], 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.

Experts suggest finding alternative ways to relax and socialize away from alcohol. Examples are: heading out for brunch instead of dinner, an exercise class, or more time spending outside. These types of activities can significantly lower symptoms and increase happy hormones in the body that may help someone win the battle for alcohol and anxiety disorders.

Hangxiety – The Link Between Alcohol and Anxiety

“Hangxiety” has become a buzzword that defines the uncomfortable feeling that often characterizes heavy alcohol use, 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 anxiety hangover, or 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:

  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Trembling
  • Elevated heart rate

Finding the Next Level of Treatment for Alcohol and Anxiety Disorders

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 misuse and withdrawal 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 ongoing individual therapy, group therapy, prescribed medications, or a combination of these methods [5].

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 

Alcohol and Anxiety
Both long-term alcohol misuse and alcohol withdrawal can significantly increase anxiety levels

Sources

[1] NIH – https://medlineplus.gov/anxiety.html

[2] WHO – https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression

[3] NCBI – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1295099/

[4] NCBI – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860396/

[5] we level up5 Ways to Manage Anxiety