Alcohol is a legal substance that is easily available and usually affordable. Drinking alcohol may seem like the easiest and quickest way to feel better when you are depressed, stressed out, or really anxious. Mental health symptoms can be distressing for many people and more so when the symptoms last for an extended time. However, self-medicating with alcohol is a short-lived solution that often results in feeling worse once alcohol’s effects wear off.

America's Mental Health Status

America is a large and diverse nation where 19 percent of adults struggle with anxiety disorders, as noted in this National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) poster. In addition, 8 percent struggle with depression, and 4 percent live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. The esteemed organization also notes that 17 percent of youth ages six to 17 experience a mental health disorder.

Mental health and mental illness symptoms are often considered the same thing. The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 9.5 million U.S. adults experienced both a mental illness and a substance use disorder. The report also mentions that 30.9 percent of those with any mental illness engaged in binge alcohol drinking in the past month, and 32.7 percent with a serious mental illness binge drank alcohol in the past month. (Figure 59) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines binge drinking as consuming more than five drinks in roughly two hours for men and four or more drinks for women in the same time frame.

Common Mental Health Symptoms

Some of the more common mental health symptoms people experience, according to NAMI, are:

  • Excessive fear or worrying
  • Feeling excessively low or sad
  • Problems with concentration and learning, confused thinking
  • Not able to perform daily activities or handle regular problems or stress
  • Extreme mood changes, such as uncontrollable highs and extremely low lows
  • A strong feeling of irritability or anger that lasts a long time
  • Avoiding friends and activities you once enjoyed
  • Trouble understanding or relating to others
  • Having low energy, change in sleeping habits, like sleeping too long or not being able to sleep
  • Lack of appetite or increased hunger
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Difficulty in perceiving reality
  • Inability to notice changes in your feelings, behavior, or personality
  • Overusing alcohol or drugs
  • Several physical ailments without a known cause, like headaches, vague aches, and pains, stomachaches.

Self-Medicating Mental Health Symptoms with Alcohol

As mentioned earlier, alcohol is a convenient and mostly affordable substance to use when you want to relieve the mental health symptoms you may be going through. You can buy it almost anywhere in various amounts and consume it immediately.

Alcohol is absorbed quickly from your digestive system into your blood, and the peak effects are usually felt within 30 to 45 minutes of taking the first sip. But for some people, the effects can begin within minutes. It is easy to understand why you might think alcohol can soothe your mental health symptoms. Nevertheless, it can take up to three hours for the body to metabolize alcohol from one to two drinks and up to 24 hours to metabolize the alcohol from eight to 10 drinks, Medical News Today says.

Depression and Self-Medication with Alcohol

Depression is a debilitating condition for many people. It can affect every aspect of a person’s life. Many people struggle with symptoms of major depression, such as prolonged sadness, loneliness, and hopelessness, and about one-third of those with major depression also have an alcohol problem, per WebMD.

Alcohol can make depression symptoms worse, and it can also render antidepressants less effective. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it can result in making you feel more depressed. It may provide temporary relief from your depression symptoms, but not for any extended amount of time. Also, if you consume alcohol regularly, your system becomes tolerant of alcohol’s effects, possibly compelling you to consume more. This, in turn, might lead to dependence, which is when you begin to feel withdrawal symptoms when not drinking. If you think you cannot function without having some alcohol in your system, addiction has taken root.

Addiction and mental health conditions, like depression, are called co-occurring disorders, and both need to be treated at the same time. Alcohol withdrawal can cause distressing symptoms, such as agitation, mood instability, anxiety, anger, hostility, and no sex drive. If you are experiencing these symptoms, it may seem like a quick fix to have a few drinks to make them go away. However, once the alcohol wears off, you will once again feel withdrawal symptoms.

Anxiety and Self-Medication with Alcohol

It’s normal to feel anxious from time to time in life, and it’s common to have an alcoholic drink now and then to ease anxiety. It may reduce fear, help you take your mind off the circumstances causing anxiety, and provide the mind with a quick boost. If you consume heavy amounts of alcohol or drink heavily regularly, it might cause a blackout, memory loss, and possibly brain damage. If you have a blackout, you are probably going to feel more anxious when you come out of it, wondering what happened before and during the blackout.

NAMI states there are four types of anxiety disorders, including general anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder, which are the two most common ones. Drinking alcohol to reduce the symptoms of these two anxiety disorders might seem like a good idea. Nonetheless, once the effects of alcohol have dissipated, you may feel more anxious than before.

Treating Mental Health Without Alcohol or Substances

There are various ways to treat mental health without using alcohol or substances. First, know that alcohol greatly affects the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain, which can make depression and anxiety worse. Medication, like antidepressants, can level these chemicals and usually relieve depression symptoms. Also, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Lexapro, Prozac, and Paxil, work by increasing levels of serotonin, the chemical that affects your mood, memory, appetite, and sleep. Alcohol depletes the level of serotonin in your brain. A doctor may prescribe beta-blockers to ease short-term anxiety.

Mental Health and Substance Use Treatment

If you have been drinking excessively or for a long time, you will likely need to enter a substance use treatment center and undergo detox. Vista Pines Health and its sister facility Arete Recovery both provide detox services. Alcohol withdrawal can be one of the most dangerous types of withdrawal to go through due to the potentiality of experiencing seizures. Detox at our facility is medically monitored to ensure you are not in danger throughout this process. Residential treatment and specifically mental health treatment are also offered.

While you reside on our campus, you will have the opportunity to participate in evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive behavior therapy and dialectical behavior therapy. Both of these are known to greatly benefit the person struggling with mental health and substance use disorders.

You may also join educational sessions that cover topics like addiction and relapse prevention, mental health education, coping and life skills, and medical/medication education. Every step you take in learning how to manage your mental health and/or addiction is a step in the right direction.

What You Can Do at Home

You can also take progressive and positive steps in managing your mental health at home. Exercise is one of the best tactics in relieving stress, anxiety, and depression, as the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA) notes. All it takes is a brisk 10-minute walk outdoors or a quick 10-minute ride on a bike. They also relay that “About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.” Plus, exercise is free.

Meditation can also help boost one’s mental health. This doesn’t mean you need to sit cross-legged on a mat reciting a calming phrase over and over. You can set aside 15 minutes of quiet time to focus on deep breathing and relaxation and listen to calming music. There is a multitude of free meditation music on the web. Find one that soothes your mind and soul.

Practical ways to reduce stress, anxiety, or depression may include avoiding caffeine, drinking chamomile tea, involving your senses in aromatherapy, or spending time with a loved pet.

The Takeaway

Self-medicating with alcohol is not a good mental health treatment. Alcohol abuse, like other substances of abuse, can wreak havoc on every aspect of your life and health. It is a very short-term way to relieve the symptoms you are experiencing and could lead to alcohol addiction. If your mental health is suffering, reach out and get help. There are millions of people in the U.S. who are also struggling with the same symptoms, meaning you are not the only one.

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