How is anxiety affected by alcohol?

Well, we have just got through the Christmas and new year season, when traditionally many of us enjoy a bit of festive cheer in the guise of alcohol- and possibly more than we normally indulge in. Even outside of celebrations, many people are accustomed to having a drink or two to help “relax” or “calm the nerves”, perhaps after work or before heading out to an event.
It is common to believe that drinking does help us to feel more relaxed and confident, and less stressed or anxious. And that is true; at least, initially. Alcohol does help to slow down processes in the nervous system and so increases a sense of calmness if you were previously stressed and anxious. “Brilliant" you may think, “job done!”;  You now feel more able to go out and be sociable.


However, as you are probably already aware, there is a negative impact too.

The negative impact of alcohol

Whilst, initially, you will get a hit of the feel-good hormone, dopamine, (and this is the same hormone you will get if you have a great success or achieve something special, or even get a number of “likes” on a social media account), as the alcohol leaves the body the dopamine levels decreases and also the hormone serotonin is suppressed.

Serotonin is known as the “feel good” hormone, but also has several other very important functions: mood stabilisation, digestion, and the regulation of various bodily functions -including waking up in the mornings. So, a reduction in these hormones leaves you feeling more anxious than you were before and lower in general mood.  You may also have had a bad night’s sleep and a hangover- which produces symptoms of headaches, shakiness, rapid heartbeat, and weakness. These factors also contribute to feeling uneasy and anxious. If you were feeling slightly anxious before you are more likely to feel highly anxious afterwards.
Another chemical that is affected by alcohol, and perhaps less talked about, is GABA- short for gamma-aminobutyric acid. Naturally occurring in the brain, GABA allows different parts of the body to communicate and helps to regulate the nervous system. Its importance to our well-being is easy to understand when we realise that it is responsible for our ability to be able to walk, talk, think, and move responsibly and safely.

When you watch the common actions of people in a drunken state you can see the direct effects of diminished levels of GABA; people tend to slur their speech, wobble as they are trying to walk, or even fall over, talk nonsense or say things they wouldn’t normally say, and sometimes put themselves in very risky and dangerous situations.
As GABA regulates the body’s neurotransmitters it has a role in decreasing anxiety and maintaining good general mental health. When we heavily drink the GABA levels are decreased, which leaves us unable to make sensible and appropriate decisions from incoming information. We are no longer able to differentiate between real and imaginary dangers. Benign actions and events are more likely to be perceived as threats. So, a lack of GSABA increases anxiety, stress and panic and can produce intrusive thoughts and persistent worry.
The more we become accustomed to drinking, the more the nervous system gets used to the suppressing effects of the alcohol- then when the alcohol levels drop the body can quickly go into “fight or flight” mode. In this situation, adrenalin is quickly dumped into the bloodstream and cortisol is produced to enable the body to prepare for what it thinks is necessary.- e.g, either fighting a danger off or running away from it. The results are a sense of panic, unease, anxiety, feeling out of control and often a sense of not being quite “in the body” or a little unreal. It is more difficult to feel relaxed and to get to sleep. If there is underlying anxiety already then it can induce panic attacks.
So now you may have a problem; you use drink to help you cope with anxiety, (if you don’t drink your anxiety feels very active), and yet if you do drink although you have some brief respite from it, later the anxiety returns with a vengeance. The vicious circle is in full swing.

Drinking to cope with anxiety

If you only use drink occasionally to help alleviate particularly stressful situations, you probably find that you are more anxious for the next 1-3 days, but that it then subsides. However, if you use alcohol more regularly or in larger quantities, you are more likely to develop long-term anxiety or even develop an anxiety disorder.

To end the misery of this cycle it is imperative that heavy or addictive drinking is stopped.  If that is too much for you to contemplate, then seek help; Find a suitable therapist or/and attend some AA meetings. It is a very common problem and there is a way through. However, this must always be done after seeking medical advice.

You may also need some intervention such as medication or specialist care, as suddenly stopping can induce serious side effects, and even cause death. You may also find it immensely helpful to learn how to regulate yourself when difficult emotions such as anxiety arise.

Addiction treatment and rehabilitation centres normally provide a very thorough and supportive programme to help people learn how to live feeling more in control of themselves and can be a positively life-changing experiences.
If you want to learn how to manage your anxiety better, without having to resort to drinking, then you could try some of these options:

  • find a good therapist
  • find a support group such as aa
  • take regular exercise
  • regularly take a few moments to do some deep breathing exercises
  • identify the underlying causes of the anxiety and take positive steps to deal with them.
  • keep yourself busy and interested in something

If you would like help and support to deal with anxiety by working with a therapist rather than through using alcohol, then please get in touch.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Gillingham, SP8 4FE
Written by Helen Lickerish, MBACP. PGDip Counselling/Coaching. Dip Trauma therapy. EMDR
Gillingham, SP8 4FE

Helen is an experienced and holistic therapist who specialises in anxiety, trauma, depression and developmental trauma (ie. parenting that has left emotional wounds that affect adult thinking and behaviour.) She is an integrative counsellor and coach, and uses EMDR and NLP to help minimise trauma and phobias.

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