Anxiety and alcoholics - how the two can merge into one

Have you ever turned to alcohol as a way of helping you cope with anxiety? If so, you’re not alone. Not only can anxiety contribute to alcohol dependence, but alcohol addiction can also worsen anxiety. National Medical Director of Bupa Dr Tim Ross helps us to understand why. 

While alcohol may initially feel like it’s helping the symptoms of anxiety, in the long run it can have damaging results. Dr Tim Ross says understanding the relationship between the two, anxiety and alcohol addiction, is important in understanding how to tackle and overcome both conditions. 

So, here’s what you should know. 

Alcohol can worsen anxiety

Dr Ross says people who experience anxiety will often turn to alcohol as a way of coping. When they experience a sense of relaxation or calm after consuming alcohol, they tend to feel like it’s helping the problem. 

But, he says regular heavy drinking can actually exacerbate the problem. Excessive drinking can damage the nerves in your brain, reducing the effect of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) which are really important for mental health. 

“It affects your brain cells in that it reduces the pathways by which nerves receive information. It can affect your ability to remember things, it can affect your problem solving skills, and your ability to think in a productive positive sense.”

He says it can affect the way in which people respond to things, often causing them to respond inappropriately to everyday situations. 

“Anxiety is difficulty coping with things, and if you have decreased pathways in the brain, you have a decreased ability to cope with things. So therefore your risk of anxiety is higher,” he says. 

Similarly, people who practice regular heavy drinking may develop symptoms of depression. The alcohol can lower levels of serotonin in the brain – a chemical which is important to help regulate moods, and makes us feel happy. 

One of the common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is, you guessed it, anxiety. Other symptoms include night fears, trembling, sleeping trouble and nausea, all symptoms which are also associated with anxiety. Withdrawal from alcohol can have serious effects on the body, and can even be fatal, so Dr Ross recommends that you seek medical supervision if you are a heavy drinker and are looking to stop or reduce.  
Man holding beer bottle near window

Anxiety can lead to alcohol dependence

At the end of a long, hard and stressful day, many people will open a beer or a bottle of wine and pour themselves a glass to relax. 
“It’s very common for people to manage stress or anxiety with alcohol,” says Dr Ross, “because alcohol is a sedative. The initial effects of when we newly feel drunk are fast overcome by that feeling of really wanting to go to sleep,” he says. 
People who experience anxiety often feel like their brain is working in overdrive, and they have trouble slowing down their thoughts. 
“Alcohol slows their brain down, so people who are affected by alcohol are not thinking as fast. It’s a way of medicating anxiety, but not a good way,” says Dr Ross.
“All it’s doing is masking the symptoms for the period of time that the alcohol is in your system. The more you drink alcohol the more you get used to it, so you then need larger amounts for the same effects - causing more long term damage.” 
Dr Ross says the recommended level of drinking alcohol is no more than two standard drinks a day, with at least two alcohol free days a week. He also  recommends that people who experience anxiety minimise their alcohol intake and visit a health professional, to help them manage their condition.

You may also be interested in our article 'Five tips for managing anxiety', by psychologist Dr Sasha Lynn.

If you'd like to learn more about anxiety or mental health, click here for additional Blue Room resources.
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