It is fairly common to unwind after a long and stressful day with a glass of wine. It can be comforting to know that there is a simple way to relieve these bad feelings. But when does this gravitation towards alcohol as a means to reduce anxiety become an unhealthy dependency?
Unfortunately, the line is often blurred and many people develop an alcohol use dependency without realizing it. Consequently, they create a potentially dangerous relationship between alcohol and anxiety that is often difficult to break.
Before delving into the relationship between alcohol and anxiety, it is first vital to understand what anxiety is and why we feel it, as well as when it becomes a disorder.
“Healthy Anxiety”: Anxiety is a natural, normal, and healthy feeling. It derives from our innate human response to potential dangers, which developed as survival instincts during early human history. Some call this our “caveman response” to potential threats. Except, nowadays we are more likely to feel anxiety before an exam or job interview instead of while fighting off animals when hunting for food! Healthy anxiety presents itself in low levels of apprehension, muscle tightening, sweating, and increased heart rate. These symptoms are all in response to a nerve-wracking stimulus of some sort.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): GAD is categorized by excessive and persistent worry and anxiety about non-threatening stimuli. The stimuli that cause anxiety in GAD sufferers would not emit that response in the average individual. People with GAD may experience extensive worry, rumination, and physical anxiety symptoms as a result of mundane stimuli, like having a messy house or having a minor disagreement with a friend. They also may experience these anxiety symptoms without cause, almost as if the feelings of anxiety came out of nowhere. You can think of it as one’s “caveman response,” except the response is to something that is not threatening.
Social Anxiety Disorder: Social Anxiety Disorder symptoms are similar to those of GAD, except they are triggered by a non-threatening social situation. For example, someone with healthy anxiety may sweat or worry before a big presentation in front of a group. On the other hand, a person with Social Anxiety Disorder will experience these symptoms in mundane social situations. For example, they can experience heightened anxiety symptoms before chatting with a friend or calling a restaurant to order food.
Panic Disorder and Anxiety Attacks: Panic Disorder is characterized by persistent panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden and extreme feelings of fear that cause physical anxiety symptoms like chest pain and rapid breathing. They can be triggered by anxiety-inducing stimuli or occur randomly. Anxiety attacks are often less severe than panic attacks and come on slower, but can be equally as distressing.
Sufferers of any type of anxiety disorder know that the symptoms are not easy to deal with, especially with how unpredictable and debilitating they can be. How are you supposed to simply carry on with life with an anxiety disorder weighing on your mental health? Additionally, anxiety can trigger depression in many individuals, which can put a lot on their plate.
As mentioned earlier, self-medicating through the use of alcohol can seem like a quick fix to ease anxiety. Drinking can make everything seem manageable for an amount of time, which is often appealing as a “temporary release” from anxiety’s grip. For example, someone suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder may find that attending a party is less daunting when they have alcohol in their system. However, alcohol and anxiety frequently have a very negative relationship with each other, for two main reasons:
Yes, you heard that right. Although drinking eases anxiety at the moment, it will heighten anxiety and other mental health issues in the long run. Why does drinking make depression and anxiety worse? It’s because alcohol changes the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in your brain that affect mood and mental health. Therefore, after the alcohol wears off, you will likely feel much more anxious than you did before drinking. The more you drink, the more these parts of your brain will become tolerant to alcohol. This will make you require more drinks to feel the calm you’re chasing from alcohol use, creating an endless cycle of alcohol use and increased anxiety.
Additionally, there is a phenomenon called “hangxiety,” or “hangover anxiety”, which describes increased feelings of anxiety during a hangover. Hangxiety affects roughly 12% of people and can be very difficult to deal with, especially if you were drinking to overcome anxiety in the first place.
Research has shown that alcohol and anxiety together can become a vicious self-perpetuating cycle that is very hard to beat. In fact, anxiety and other mental health diagnoses, like depression or childhood trauma, increase the risk of developing AUD. Anxiety, therefore, acts as a vulnerability to the development of an alcohol use dependency. Because anxiety sufferers are more vulnerable, they require more active and persistent resistance to alcohol use than people who do not have an anxiety disorder or another related mental health disorder.
It is never too late to start breaking the cycle of anxiety and alcohol use as comorbid occurrences. AUD is certainly not a walk in the park to improve, but hard work will often leave you with reduced/controlled anxiety and an overall healthier mindset. Fortunately, there are many different routes you can take to improve both your anxiety and alcohol use dependency. Keep reading to find out more about them!
Although medication alone won’t cure an anxiety disorder altogether, a combination of anxiety medication and therapy is highly effective in decreasing anxiety symptoms and is recommended by mental health professionals. There are a handful of different types of medications that help with anxiety. Be sure to consult your doctor so the two of you can find a medication that is right for you! Until then, here is a lowdown of the main two types of anxiety medications:
1. Benzodiazepines, often called “benzos,” are a type of medication that help calm your mind and relax your muscles during times of high anxiety. Benzodiazepines belong in the category of Anxiolytics, which is a type of anti-anxiety medication. Benzos are typically a short-term treatment of anxiety and are often prescribed to people who experience frequent panic attacks. They are usually not recommended to be used long-term because of their addictive nature and the increased risk of side effects like difficulty with memory and balance. The most common brands of benzos are Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), Valium (diazepam), and Chlordiazepoxide (Librium).
2. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs, are a type of antidepressant medication popularly used to treat anxiety disorders. They are often prescribed by doctors at low doses and gradually increased with time if needed. As the name suggests, this medication works at increasing serotonin levels in the brain, therefore helping increase positive moods. Although they are not known to have dangerous side effects, they can cause minor side effects like nausea, drowsiness, sexual dysfunction, and loss of appetite. The most common brands of SSRIs are Lexapro (Escitalopram), Prozac (Fluoxetine), and Zoloft (Sertraline).
As mentioned before, childhood trauma creates a vulnerability to both anxiety disorders and alcohol use disorder. This is why getting to the root of the problem is often a major component of decreasing current anxiety and alcohol dependency.
An effective treatment perfect for treating both AUD and anxiety disorders simultaneously is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The purpose of CBT is to help you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings that bring out anxiety and/or a desire to use alcohol. It also teaches you which healthy coping skills to use when you are feeling anxious and/or like drinking.
Psychotherapy, also known as “Talk Therapy,” is also a great option for identifying the underlying causes of these issues. Psychotherapy is especially helpful for working through childhood trauma that may be influencing your anxiety and alcohol dependency negatively. In the end, the type of therapy that works for you (possibly combined with the prescription of antidepressants) may be tremendously helpful in providing you with AUD and anxiety relief.
Learning healthy coping mechanisms, as well as unlearning unhealthy coping mechanisms, can take a bit of time. After all, you did not develop unhealthy coping mechanisms overnight—they took some time to form and become a routine. The same goes for healthy coping skills. Practice and remain patient with yourself! A few healthy coping mechanisms that you should try to incorporate into your life are:
When you start to feel anxious or feel yourself reaching for an alcoholic drink, take a step back and pause. Practicing mindfulness in these moments and focusing on the present can help suppress urges and keep your anxiety at bay. Some may find it helpful to listen to guided mindfulness meditations, especially if you’re new to the concept of mindfulness.
A great way to distract from anxiety and alcohol use is to put your energy into a new activity. It can be as small as starting a new exercise routine, or as large as volunteering at a local organization. Focus your full attention on whatever puts your mind at ease.
There is nothing worse than struggling alone. If you feel ready, have a conversation about how you have been feeling with someone you trust. Whether they provide helpful advice or just a listening ear, having a solid support system is vital in recovery. Loved ones can help with AUD and anxiety relief more than you could ever imagine.
Here at Eleanor Health, we help anyone concerned about their mental health or affected by substance use live amazing lives. We offer care and treatment that takes into account the whole individual, meaning that we focus largely on one’s life experiences, cultures, and values when offering assistance. With resources available in medication-assisted treatment, therapy & counseling, psychiatry, recovery coaching, and more, we are dedicated to helping you get to a place where you feel happy and healthy.
If you are seeking help with your loved one’s addiction, contact us today or complete our quick contact form below, to speak with an addiction treatment specialist.
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