Alcohol addiction and anxiety disorders often occur together. Alcohol is well known for its inhibition-lowering effects, and many who people who suffer from anxiety may use alcohol as a method of coping or self-medication.
Although alcohol can seem helpful for managing anxiety in the moment, there are long-term risks that can lead to dependence on alcohol. Alcohol addiction can impact everyday functioning. It can also make anxiety symptoms worse.
Recognizing the relationship between anxiety and alcohol can be a first step in seeking help and developing coping strategies that do not include alcohol. Even though alcohol may temporarily address feelings of anxiety or panic, the long-term consequences of alcohol use can impact physical and mental health.
How Alcohol Causes Anxiety
Self-medicating for anxiety by using alcohol can provide temporary relief or distraction from worrying thoughts or feelings of panic. However, chronic use of alcohol can also disrupt some of the systems and chemicals in the brain responsible for regulating mood and managing stress.
Although the onset of anxiety disorders usually comes before an alcohol misuse disorder, using alcohol can certainly contribute to anxiety symptoms. People often feel anxious when they stop drinking. They also may feel they need to continue to drink to relieve symptoms of anxiety and avoid alcohol withdrawal.
The reasons for why alcohol can cause anxiety are linked to certain brain chemicals. Reasons are also based on the fact that using alcohol can be a barrier to seeking treatment for anxiety.
People who suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) experience regular and persistent symptoms of anxiety without any specific cause or reason. GAD can be very disruptive to functioning, and some people may use alcohol to help them manage feelings of anxiety.
However, repeated use of alcohol as a coping strategy can increase the risk of physical and psychological dependence. GAD can be treated using medication, therapy, or both. Formal treatment for GAD can offer healthy and adaptive coping strategies that are not based on substances.
Alcohol is very common in social situations and is frequently used to ‘take the edge off’ in busy social settings. Even though using alcohol to manage social anxiety can seem like a common practice, it can promote alcohol misuse and abuse.
Social anxiety disorder can prevent some people from seeing friends, family, or from living or working a normal schedule. Therapy for social anxiety can provide individuals with tools such as mindfulness or cognitive strategies to help people feel equipped to manage social anxiety without alcohol.
Panic attacks themselves can be extremely distressing, but many people also experience severe anxiety about getting or avoiding the occurrence of a panic attack. A panic attack can include a racing heart, feeling lightheaded, or feeling short of breath. As a depressant, alcohol can slow down some of these systems and temporarily reduce feelings of anxiety or panic.
However, alcohol does not address the underlying reasons for a panic attack. Without other coping strategies, people can come to rely on alcohol to avoid panic attacks. This reliance on alcohol as self-medication can cause dependence or alcohol addiction which may, in turn, increase the risk of panic attacks.
Can Alcohol Help Calm Anxiety Symptoms?
Alcohol can temporarily calm anxiety symptoms. It can seem like an easy and socially accepted way to cope with anxiety. However, relying on alcohol as a form of self-medication can prevent people from seeking the treatment they need and learning long-term strategies to manage anxiety.
The relationship between alcohol and anxiety can be a vicious cycle. People may use alcohol as a coping strategy for anxiety or panic. However, repeated use may actually increase overall feelings of anxiety.
As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol can temporarily slow down some of the signals in the body and brain that can produce symptoms of anxiety. This relief is often short-lived and comes with consequences ranging from hangovers to addiction.
Treating Alcohol and Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety is a very common mental health disorder and can prevent people from living their lives normally. There are many types of treatments available for anxiety, ranging from therapy, mindfulness strategies, exercise, or medication where appropriate.
Alcohol is not an appropriate or safe way to manage anxiety and comes with many risks to long term physical and mental health. If you or a loved one are suffering from an alcohol abuse disorder related to anxiety, asking for help can be the first step in recovery. Contact The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health today to discuss treatments for alcohol addiction.
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Gilpin, Nicholas W., Koob, George K. “Neurobiology of Alcohol Dependence: Focus on Motivational Mechanisms.” Alcohol Res Health, 2008. Accessed September 5, 2019.
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