How Does Alcohol Affect Anxiety?
When I was a teenager, I was heading home from a family vacation when my hands started cramping. I did not feel overheated, overexerted, or ill. I was simply looking out the window from the backseat of my parents’ car when it began. Two distinct muscle spasms seized both hands. Their movement hindered, and all my fingers had stiffened and curled.
Seconds later, a tingly yet numbing sensation radiated alongside my nose and mouth. If it had a sound, I swear I would have heard it buzz, for it was steady and vibrating. Like a virus, it spread slowly across my face. My vision narrowed, and before I knew it, I couldn’t catch my breath.
We detoured and rushed toward the nearest hospital. Cradled in my dad’s arms, I waited for the examination.
My diagnosis? A panic attack.
It’s amazing how anxiety can physically manifest in the body. But it can, and it does. Since then, I have had more episodes than I can remember. On the pendulum, they’ve shifted from mild to violent. And while I’ve never liked taking medicine for my anxiety, I never did turn down a glass of wine to help combat it.
As I became older, wine became my preferred elixir. One or two glasses mellowed me out, but any more than that I found only exacerbated my anxiety. What would start out as an attempt to unwind would leave me feeling worse. I was doing more harm than good, and it became clear there was a connection between my alcohol intake and my anxiety.
The Effects of Alcohol Use
Alcohol is a sedative and one of the most common drugs consumed in the United States. It relaxes the nerves, gives you so-called “liquid courage,” and puts your problems on pause. Its effects are very similar to anti-anxiety medicines. If approved by your doctor and consumed responsibly, it really isn’t necessarily dangerous.
But the more you drink, the more tolerant to its effects you’ll become. When that happens, you’ll need more alcohol to reduce your stress. I call it the vicious cycle of “more.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the initial effects of alcohol can be felt within ten minutes of it entering the body. That relaxed feeling you get is due to a rise in your blood alcohol content (BAC) — and as it rises, you’ll experience elated feelings. But these feelings are temporary and often deceiving. Because the more your BAC goes up, the more impaired you’ll become.
Slurred speech, difficulty with motor functions, memory issues, and reduction of inhibition…these are all signs of alcohol intoxication. And the more you drink, the more dangerous it is.
Excess drinking can also lead to physical and mental consequences, such as blackouts, loss of memory, and even brain damage. Long-term use can contribute to developing heart disease, certain cancers, and alcohol use disorder (AUD) — a brain disorder characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse effects.
And all these issues can create more anxiety as you try to cope with their symptoms.
Anxiety is a normal response when met with a problem or stressful situation. But when it is no longer temporary anxiety, when it manifests over long periods of time, when it’s periodic, and when it’s intense, it is known as an anxiety disorder. These disorders impede day-to-day tasks, can affect anyone, and can reduce the quality of life and relationships.
According to the American Addiction Centers (AAC), there are various anxiety disorders that have the potential to result in detrimental effects on a person’s life. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of them. It is one of the most common anxiety problems experienced by individuals. The disorder is characterized by excessive levels of anxiety that can last for months at a time.
Symptoms of GAD include:
- Consistent restlessness
- Trouble with concentration
- Tense muscles
- Erratic sleep patterns
A panic disorder is usually more severe than GAD. A person with a panic disorder is susceptible to panic attacks, which are debilitating episodes that come on suddenly and are very intense.
Symptoms of a panic disorder include:
- Loss of control
- Sudden intense feelings of fear
- Worrying about future attacks
- Avoiding sites of past attacks
Another common anxiety problem is social anxiety disorder. And as the name suggests, the disorder is “triggered by social situations in which emotions such as fear or embarrassment may arise,” according to the AAC.
Symptoms of social anxiety disorder include:
- Difficulty talking to others
- Fear of judgment
- Highly self-conscious feelings while in the company of others
- Excessive worrying about an upcoming social event
- Nausea when around other people
- Trembling around others
Does Drinking Alcohol Create — or Worsen — Anxiety?
Drinking alcohol to cope with social anxiety disorder can be especially problematic. While it is common for people to drink to overcome insecurities and pressures felt during social interactions, it can lead to dependence on alcohol during the time spent socializing. This can worsen anxiety symptoms. Furthermore, overconsumption of alcohol can lead to hangovers, which cause symptoms that make you feel more anxious than you were.
Alcohol consumption can cause new-onset anxiety as well as worsen pre-existing anxiety symptoms. Many turn to alcohol as an unhealthy coping tool to reduce symptoms of anxiety. Alcohol may be a temporary, unhealthy way of “relieving anxiety” and forgetting about your underlying stressors. However, alcohol will not erase triggers lurking under the surface. Whether your anxiety is associated with past trauma, financial hardship, or untreated depression, alcohol is a short-term Band-Aid. Chronic alcohol use impacts one’s ability to respond to stress in healthy, effective ways, paving the road to anxiety. This could be a result of alcohol’s effect on the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates negative emotions.
Do all types of alcohol cause anxiety?
There is no research that suggests one type of alcohol can affect anxiety levels more than other types. While some may believe that wine and beer may result in less anxiety than hard liquor due to its alcohol content, that is simply anecdotal. It’s not necessarily the type of alcohol you consume that affects your anxiety, but rather anxiety is related to the amount — and frequency of — alcohol use.
Exploring the relationship between alcohol and panic attacks
Alcohol has an effect on an array of chemicals in the brain, including GABA, serotonin, and dopamine. When these are altered, it throws off how the body reacts to everyday situations. Alcohol can induce panic as a result of its effects on GABA, a chemical that typically has a relaxing effect. Mild amounts of alcohol can stimulate this chemical, causing feelings of relaxation, but heavy drinking can deplete it, resulting in increased tension and feelings of panic.
Those with panic disorder, and other types of anxiety disorders, may self-medicate with alcohol in hopes that they will reduce their anxiety levels. When more and more alcohol is consumed over time, they can potentially become dependent, increasing the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. When they stop drinking, they can face alcohol withdrawal, which can cause severe anxiety.
Anxiety’s association with alcohol tolerance
Alcohol tolerance occurs when someone needs more alcohol over time to induce the same feelings. This can unravel into a vicious cycle because one may initially use alcohol as a coping mechanism to relieve underlying anxiety, but over time, they need more alcohol to produce the same effects.
Dependence, on the other hand, develops when the body adapts to regular alcohol consumption. Tell-tale signs of dependence are alcohol cravings or withdrawal symptoms when the individual reduces their alcohol use or quits drinking. Alcohol withdrawal can worsen pre-existing anxiety or create new anxiety symptoms, potentially resulting in the need to drink again.
Alcohol and Anxiety: A Research-Backed Connection
As a sedative, alcohol changes levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which can worsen anxiety. In fact, as your BAC drops and the alcohol effects wear off, depression can set it. Alcohol-induced anxiety can last for several hours, even an entire day after drinking. This includes even moderate amounts of alcohol.
So while using alcohol to treat anxiety can temporarily reduce it, it can backfire. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) notes that alcohol can increase anxiety within just a few hours of consumption. And according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), anxiety disorders can be prolonged and exacerbated by drinking.
A study done by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine showed there is a connection between alcohol and anxiety on a molecular level. Excessive drinking can rewire the brain, which can make a person more prone to developing anxiety problems. The study says, “while alcohol abuse can increase a person’s risk for a traumatic event that could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, the changes that can occur in an individual’s brain can be enough to increase their risk for anxiety issues, as well.”
Treatment for Anxiety
While it isn’t always curable, anxiety can be treated and managed with a combination of medicine and therapy. If there is a presence of both substance use disorder and anxiety, it is best to treat both conditions at the same time. Because the symptoms of one problem can trigger the other, so if they’re not both addressed, the potential for relapse increases. According to the AAC, therapy is an effective form of treatment for someone dealing with both alcohol abuse and anxiety.
There are ways, however, to reduce anxiety. According to an article published by Healthline you can do the following:
- Sleep regularly and consistently, around 6 to 8 hours a night, depending on your age.
- Limit the amount of caffeine and alcohol you consume, as both can increase your level of anxiety.
- Eat consistent and healthy meals every day.
- Set aside time every day to focus on relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga.
- Make time each day to engage in a relaxing hobby, such as listening to music or painting.
Healthline also suggest ways to “cope with your anxiety by slowing it and preventing it from increasing and causing panic attacks:”
- Slowly breathe in and breathe out to calm yourself down when you begin to feel anxious.
- Think positive thoughts when you feel your thoughts becoming too negative or overwhelming.
- Slowly count from 1 to 10 or higher until feelings of anxiety begin to fade.
- Focus on something that makes you laugh or feel positive emotions until your anxiety starts to fade.
Bottom line: Alcohol isn’t an anxiety treatment. And if you have an anxiety and/or alcohol problem, seek help from a mental health professional to discuss co-occurring disorder treatment. For more information about long-term rehab programs and sober living homes in NJ, reach out to us today.