Drinking is thought by many to alleviate stress. But drinking changes the brain and actually makes it more susceptible to anxiety and other mental health disorders. To combat co-occurring disorders involving alcoholism and anxiety, people should avoid alcohol and seek mental health treatment.
Drinking has long been viewed as an activity that reduces stress. People often attend happy hour after a long work day or have a glass of wine after their children go to sleep. While alcohol may help them relax temporarily, it can actually increase feelings of anxiety.
Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension or fear in anticipation of a situation, such as the first day of school or a job interview. People struggling with anxiety often turn to alcohol to calm their nerves. But over time, this can contribute to alcohol addiction.
Drinking changes the brain. After the euphoric effects of alcohol fade, serotonin levels drop. This causes people to feel anxious or depressed the day after heavy drinking.
Alcohol use reduces blood-sugar levels, causing people to experience irritability, dizziness and weakness. Drinking alcohol can also result in dehydration, fatigue, nausea and heart palpitations. Heart palpitations are a common outcome of anxiety.
Ways to reduce anxiety without drinking include:
Drinking heavily can cause people to perform volatile actions that they would not normally engage in or may result in a blackout. This can induce stress the next morning — especially for those who do not remember what happened the night before.
Long-term heavy drinkers are particularly vulnerable to developing an anxiety disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Heavy alcohol use can also lead to other mental health disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder and bulimia.
People who rely on alcohol to combat anxiety can develop alcoholism. People with alcohol addiction who suddenly stop drinking can experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating, nausea and seizures. These effects can exacerbate their anxiety.
Many college students use alcohol to cope with anxiety caused by tension, chronic worrying, nervousness and trouble sleeping. But this can be dangerous.
A 2013 study by the University of Buffalo Department of Psychology found that college students who drink to deal with anxiety may experience more negative alcohol-related problems, such as lower grades or missing class, than do students who use alcohol for other reasons.
Another study, published by scientists at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, found that heavy drinking affects brain circuitry, making people more vulnerable to anxiety problems. The study also found that people with a history of alcohol abuse are at an increased risk for developing PTSD after a traumatic event.
People who rely on alcohol to fight their anxiety problems may become more reliant on it. Continued use of alcohol to mask anxiety disorders can increase tolerance and potentially result in addiction.
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Alcohol isn’t a medication for stress. In addition to worsening anxiety, the effects of alcohol can include to obesity, cardiovascular damage, liver disease, depression and other mental health disorders. People with anxiety disorders who drink to cope with stress can develop alcoholism, which creates a new set of physical and psychological problems.
A number of treatment options for anxiety are effective. A combination of therapy and medications such as sertraline (Zoloft) has proved beneficial for those dealing with social anxiety or social phobias.
Other medications that address anxiety problems include antidepressants such as:
In addition, benzodiazepines can help. This class of drugs provides temporary relief from uncontrollable feelings of anxiety. Popular benzos used to treat anxiety disorders include alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan).
Doctors also use cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety. CBT has taught individuals with generalized anxiety disorder to effectively deal with situations that cause them to feel anxious. In conjunction with traditional treatment, this form of therapy can also help people overcome alcohol use disorders.
People experiencing anxiety and alcohol addiction should seek alcohol rehab. During the intake process, medical professionals will screen for co-occurring disorders, including anxiety. Treating one disorder while failing to address the other can worsen the untreated condition and prevent clients from achieving full physical and psychological recovery.