Consuming alcohol is a double-edged sword for people with anxiety. Some people have a drink or two to relax and reduce anxiety levels. Because alcohol is a depressant, it can have a sedating effect. As your blood alcohol content (BAC) rises you might feel more relaxed, less shy and get a boost to your mood. The alcohol suppresses the area in your brain that regulates inhibition. Behaviors that you found fearful, like talking to someone, suddenly don’t seem scary.
But this is temporary, because once your BAC drops as the alcohol leaves your system, your anxiety levels can increase. Withdrawal from alcohol, usually called a hangover, can cause depression and anxiety. The other problem with alcohol consumption is that you develop a tolerance to it. At first, you might only need one drink before your anxiety subsides, but as your tolerance grows, you might find that you need two or three drinks before you feel relaxed. This can lead to alcohol abuse or dependence, and chronic alcohol use can lead to anxiety, according to American Addiction Centers.
Alcohol abuse and specific anxiety disorders
There is a strong connection between alcohol abuse and social anxiety disorder. Twenty percent of those with social anxiety have some form of alcohol abuse or dependence, according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
There might also be an association between alcohol use and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Excessive alcohol use can “rewire” your brain making it more difficult to recover from a traumatic experience, according to a study completed at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Chronic use of alcohol can impair your brain’s ability to register that a situation is no longer dangerous, which is a common problem for people with PTSD; they have trouble differentiating between safe and dangerous situations. They may stay in a state of high alert even when in a safe situation, or become hypervigilant with only the slightest indication of danger.
Another danger of alcohol use is that it can delay seeking treatment. Drinking might be a form of self-medication and when used to get through situations that trigger anxiety, you might not feel that you need help. It masks your anxiety; however, in order to develop long-term strategies for managing anxiety, you need more than masking. Alcohol might also interfere with the effectiveness of therapy and medication.
Do you have a drinking problem?
According to the ADAA, certain behaviors indicate you may have a drinking problem or are risk of developing alcoholism:
- Drink alcohol four or more times a week
- Have five or more drinks containing alcohol in one day
- Not able to stop drinking once you’ve started
- Need a drink in the morning to get yourself going
- Feel guilty or remorseful after drinking
- Heard a relative, friend, co-worker, or doctor express concern about your drinking or suggest you cut down
What you can do
If you believe you have a drinking problem, you can start by talking with your physician who can refer you to support resources in your area, for example:
- In-patient alcohol treatment programs
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings
- One-on-one therapy or counseling
Both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational enhancement therapy (MET) have been found to be helpful in treating co-occurring anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse, according to ADAA.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.