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Alcohol and Anxiety

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Many people feel anxious from time to time in their lives. Anxiety is a common reaction to circumstances that can make you feel nervous or a little afraid. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that anxiety disorders are the most common mental health illness in the U.S. Forty million people are affected by them. Anxiety disorders are very treatable, but 36.9 percent of those with them do not get help.

Self-medicating with alcohol is one way in which people with anxiety disorders cope. While it may seem like a glass of wine, a mug of beer, or a mixed drink will soothe anxiousness, too much of it can be harmful.

Alcohol is a sedative and a depressant that affects the central nervous system (CNS). Drinking alcohol can lessen fears, make you feel a little more relaxed, and even give you a wee mood boost. Drinking too much of it can produce noticeable changes in your physical and mental health.

As with any substance that affects your brain, too much alcohol or alcohol consumed for an extensive amount of time can cause tolerance. Tolerance occurs when you no longer respond to a substance in the way you first did. In other words, you are not feeling the same calming feeling from alcohol as when you had the first drink. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) relays that it will take higher amounts of the substance (alcohol) to feel the same effects as when the first drink was consumed. 

The more you drink, the more you will need to feel less anxious, which, in turn, can make you more anxious. This leads us to ask:

Can You Get Anxiety from Drinking?

The short answer is yes. Alcohol causes your blood alcohol level (BAC) to rise, causing a temporary feeling of relaxation, as indicated on Healthline. When your BAC level falls, you may feel depressed. If you have several drinks, enjoying the short-lived feelings of calmness and excitement, you may become anxious as your BAC level starts to go down. This may cause anxiety.

It is also pertinent to understand that alcohol changes the serotonin levels and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which may worsen anxiety. It is possible to feel more anxious as the alcohol wears off. Also, alcohol-induced anxiety might last for several hours or possibly the entire day after drinking.

A study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that anxiety is a mental health disorder that could be produced by extended drinking in some instances. Substance-induced anxiety is a possibility for those who have anxiety disorders, such as GAD or SAD, and this additional anxiety issue only worsens the effects of the initial disorder.

Does Alcohol Increase Anxiety?

The short answer is yes. Alcohol increases the dopamine neurons in the reward center of the brain, and when alcohol is not consumed, the rush you get from dopamine is short-lived. Alcohol also increases GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) activity in the brain. 

GABA is involved in several brain functions, such as memory, motor control, and anxiety. It is also the principal inhibitory neurotransmitter. When you stop drinking, GABA decreases, as do the feelings of calm and relaxation. If you were drinking to calm anxiousness, you might be feeling more anxious now.

If you are affected with an anxiety disorder, you might notice an increase in anxiety you feel when you stop drinking. The more you drink to lessen anxious feelings, the more you will need to feel the same calm and relaxing feelings. You may also feel more anxious when you are not drinking.

The withdrawal symptoms felt when you stop drinking can aggravate and heighten anxiety.  Alcohol also affects people with panic disorders adversely. Alcohol can increase anxiety, which could lead a person affected with panic disorder to believe their irrational thoughts.

Also, alcoholics and heavy drinkers are more susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder, as long-term and heavy alcohol use rewire the brain. If you stop drinking abruptly after having been a heavy drinker, the withdrawal symptoms you experience can increase your anxiety.

Does Alcohol Reduce Social Anxiety?

People who are affected with social anxiety disorder (7 percent of Americans) who may find social settings or interactions unbearable may drink to calm their nerves and feel a little more sociable. They may believe they need to drink before any social interaction, which could lead to feeling dependent on the substance before any interaction. 

Alcohol can reduce social anxiety, but for the very short-term. It is essential to note that some might think they need a drink before any social interaction, therefore, leading to alcohol dependence or addiction.

The more alcohol you drink, the more likely you will experience a hangover the next day. Hangover symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, dizziness, dehydration, and low blood sugar, can cause an uptick in anxiety.

What Does Alcohol Anxiety Feel Like?

Anxiety itself has symptoms to know and understand:

  • Feeling nervous or restless
  • Have an increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trembling
  • Having trouble concentrating or focusing
  • Trouble trying to control worrying
  • Can’t get to sleep or stay asleep
  • Worrying about anxiety triggers and how to avoid them

Hangxiety, Maybe?

Alcohol anxiety can also be called “hangxiety,” a colloquial term used to describe how you might feel the day after you imbibed too much. For some, you could feel sweaty, have a stomachache, and your mind may be racing to remember what happened when you were drinking. “Hangxiety” is all that but also includes the overwhelming feeling of worry and anxiety. People with anxiety disorders are more prone to get “hangxiety” than others, Self reports.

How Can I Calm My Anxiety from Alcohol?

If your anxiety is coming from drinking too much, there are ways to calm anxiety from a hangover and feel better. The Cleveland Clinic recommends:

  • Eat bland foods with complex carbs, like toast or crackers. It boosts low blood sugar levels and lessens nausea.
  • Drink plenty of water, juice, or broth to rehydrate and maintain hydration.
  • Get some sleep. Rest will help counteract fatigue.
  • Take an antacid to settle an upset stomach.
  • Take aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, to help your headache or muscle ache, but do so sparingly. They can upset the stomach. Do not take acetaminophen products as they can be toxic in your liver when combined with alcohol.

Understand that anxiety from alcohol takes time to go away. To calm it somewhat:

  • Try deep breathing exercises while focusing on one specific object.
  • Try mindful meditation.
  • If you feel up to it, take a walk outside. 

Other ways to calm anxiety from alcohol might be abstaining from alcohol altogether. Instead of having a glass of wine or a beer, try a non-alcoholic sparkling wine or a non-alcoholic beer.

alcohol and anxiety

Should I Stop Drinking If I Have Anxiety?

If you have an anxiety disorder, self-medicating with alcohol can lead to alcohol abuse or addiction. While you may think that a drink or two to calm your worries or fears is helpful once in a while, you may be more likely to have a drink more often whenever you feel anxious.

Alcohol misuse and withdrawal can make your anxiety symptoms much worse. Using alcohol to “self-medicate” might make you feel better now, but in the long run, your anxiety may worsen, Verywell Mind says. The health website also notes that if you experience alcohol use withdrawal symptoms, “it can create a cycle of heightened anxiety and increased alcohol use.”

Mild anxiety can be managed without alcohol. If you are using alcohol to manage them, this is a good time to stop and try other ways that don’t include substances. Yoga, meditation, exercise, and other holistic possibilities are available.

Treatment for Anxiety and Alcohol Use

There are many effective treatments for anxiety and alcohol use disorders, including cognitive behavior therapy, group therapy, and medication. Alcohol should not be considered an effective way to manage anxiety-related disorders and their symptoms.

It is vital to seek help from a doctor or mental health professional if you want to stop misusing alcohol to calm your anxiety symptoms. In addition, there are numerous online resources and community boards to find and join. Conversing with others in your same situation can be helpful and beneficial. If you feel that this is something you don’t like, your best bet is to seek professional help before alcohol use becomes out of control and becomes an addiction.

Addiction is a chronic disorder of the brain that is treatable. Anxiety is a mental health disorder that is also treatable. There is nothing to be ashamed of when seeking help for mental health disorders, whether it is an anxiety-related disorder or substance use disorder. It takes strength and determination to acknowledge you need help and overcome them.

Reach out for help and support today.

Sources

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Facts and Statistics. from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

NIDA. (2017, January 12)Tolerance, Dependence, Addition: What's the Difference? from https://archives.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/tolerance-dependence-addiction-whats-difference

Healthline. Alcohol and Anxiety. (2019, September 26) Cherney, K. from https://www.healthline.com/health/alcohol-and-anxiety#alcohol-effects

SAMHSA. (2005) 9 Substance-Induced Disorders. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64178/

Mayo Clinic. (2018, May 4) Anxiety Disorders. Symptoms & Causes. from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961

Self. (2021, January 1) How to Tell If Your Hangover Anxiety Could Be a Problem. Stiehl, C. from https://www.self.com/story/hangover-anxiety

Cleveland Clinic. Hangover: Management and Treatment. from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/16627-hangover/management-and-treatment

Verywell Mind. (2020, September 17) The Risks of Using Alcohol to Relieve Anxiety. Ankrom, S. MS, LCPC. from https://www.verywellmind.com/using-alcohol-to-relieve-anxiety-2584210#alcohol-use-and-anxiety-disorders

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