Alcohol and Anxiety

Written by Kristeen Cherney | Published on July 23, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Akikur Mohammad, MD on July 23, 2014

Understand how alcohol and anxiety are more closely related than you may think.

Understanding Anxiety

Some people try soothe their anxiety with alcohol. When dealing with stressful days or nervous situations, you may be tempted to have a glass of wine or a beer to calm your nerves. But alcohol is not a medication. And drinking alcohol — especially heavily and for the long term — could actually increase your anxiety.

Additionally, drinking alcohol can have serious consequences for people being medically treated for anxiety. While having a drink might seem like a good idea to ease anxiety, you may be doing more harm than good.

“Unwinding” with Alcohol

There is some truth to the belief that alcohol can reduce stress. Alcohol is both a sedative and a depressant that affects the central nervous system.

At first, drinking can reduce fears and take your mind off your troubles. It can even help you feel less shy. You might experience a boost in mood, but the overall result is relaxation. In fact, the effects of alcohol can be similar to those of anti-anxiety medications.

Occasionally unwinding with alcohol isn’t necessarily dangerous if your doctor approves. The problem is that once you start drinking, you can build a tolerance to the de-stressing effects of alcohol. This can make anxiety and stress even more difficult to cope with.

How Alcohol Worsens Anxiety

When it comes to anxiety, alcohol can be a cause for concern.

Alcohol changes levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. This can make your anxiety worse. In fact, you might 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. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), about 7 percent of Americans have this form of anxiety.

A person with social anxiety may find social situations unbearable. It’s common for people with social anxiety disorder to drink alcohol to cope with social occasions, but this can lead to a dependence on alcohol during socializing. It can also make anxiety symptoms worse.

The ADAA estimates that 20 percent of patients with social anxiety disorder also suffer from alcohol dependence.

Besides needing alcohol to socialize, other signs of dependence may include:

  • needing a drink to get going in the morning
  • drinking heavily four or more days per week
  • requiring a drink at every get-together
  • inability to stop drinking
  • drinking five or more alcoholic beverages in one day

Overconsumption of alcohol can also lead to another cause of anxiety: hangovers. A hangover can cause symptoms that make you feel more anxious than before, including:

  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • dehydration
  • low blood glucose (sugar)

Can Alcohol Cause Anxiety?

The long-term consequences of alcohol abuse can lead to a variety of health concerns, including mental health disorders. Many believe that heavy drinking might actually lead to anxiety.

Research from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine shows that alcoholics find it difficult to recover from traumatic events. This is possibly attributed to the effects of alcohol abuse, which can actually change brain activity.

Given these findings, there is a concern that long-term heavy drinkers may be predisposed to developing an anxiety disorder. However, there is no evidence that moderate drinking will cause anxiety.

Bottom Line: Alcohol Isn’t Anxiety Treatment

Moderate drinking is not the same for all genders and age groups. The term refers to two drinks a day for adult men, and one for women. Since older adults metabolize alcohol faster, this age group should be limited to one alcoholic beverage per day. Check with your doctor if moderate alcohol consumption is suitable for you.

Remember that the risks of alcohol can outweigh any benefits. Some risks include:

  • depression
  • obesity
  • liver disease
  • cardiovascular damage

Alcohol affects everyone differently. It can cheer some up after a rough day, while others might feel the more of the sedating effects. Discuss concerns with your doctor first, and see if alcohol is safe for you.

Keep in mind that you may not safely drink alcohol if you have:

  • a low tolerance for drinking
  • anxious or aggressive tendencies
  • a mental health disorder

Alcohol isn’t a source of anxiety treatment. Seek help from a mental health professional — not from a bottle of alcohol — if you have an anxiety disorder. If you think you have a problem with alcohol, seek help from your doctor right away.

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