How alcohol fuels anxiety

What I hear on a regular basis is ‘Alcohol really helps with my anxiety’
So, what exactly is anxiety? It is a future-orientated state of mind. A fear about what is going to happen. It has physical symptoms too, such as sweating and increased heart-rate. Anxiety can actually be useful occasionally as it keeps us alert and can help us perform, for example, in a job interview.

There are different types of anxiety. Social anxiety disorder is an intense fear of being around other people whereas general anxiety disorder is a long-term condition where someone feels anxious about a wide range of situations and tends to replace one reason to worry with another.

So, how does alcohol help with any of this? The answer is, it doesn’t. However, it is understandable why someone would think it was helping. Alcohol acts as a sedative so initially can make you feel more at ease. This, in turn, may make you feel more socially confident and forget your worries……. for a while anyway.

What we need to remember is that these benefits are only short-term. The relaxed feeling you experience is due to chemical changes in the brain but these effects wear off fast and the pleasant feeling fades. The cycle of drinking to ease anxiety goes like this:

*You drink alcohol
*You feel calm
*Alcohol withdraws from the body
*Anxiety increases
*You need another drink to relieve the anxiety

And so it continues, the initial calm feeling fades, the anxiety heightens and more alcohol is needed!

We can see how such an unhealthy relationship with alcohol due to anxiety could easily develop by looking at this. If the effect of alcohol seems like it is providing you with relief from your anxiety, it is no surprise that many will use this as a tool to cope without realising where it can lead. Someone suffering from anxiety is three times more likely to develop a problem with alcohol.

Many people don’t think of alcohol as a drug but it is the most widely used and easily accessible drug on the planet. How it makes you feel will depend on many things. For example, what mood you are in when you drink, who you are with and your environment. Overall mental health will most certainly be affected due to alcohol altering your energy levels, mood, sleeping patterns, concentration and memory.

Globally around 107 million people are alcohol-dependent and 3 million deaths every year are a result of excessive drinking. Around one third of problem drinkers will likely suffer from mental health issues, most commonly anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. It certainly tends to go hand in hand with many people misusing alcohol having mental health difficulties and people with mental health difficulties misusing alcohol.

It seems pretty obvious with such overwhelming evidence available, but still there is much debate about alcohol and the reasons why so many people have a troubled relationship with it. Still, it is questioned why people drink to excess despite the consequences and the link between this and mental health.

The message is very clear. Mental health is everyone’s business and as a society we need to have a far better understanding of it. One of the least explored is the connection to alcohol use. It is seemingly swept under the carpet while the focus continues to be on the physical consequences.

If you are someone who suffers from anxiety and has seen your alcohol use start to escalate out of control and are using drink as a way to self-medicate try to look at alternative coping mechanisms instead of reaching for that drink.
Sobriety is all about learning how to live without the use of alcohol.
Firstly, it’s important to know your anxiety triggers. They might include isolation and loneliness, lack of sleep, stressful situations or meeting new people. Once you are able to recognise your triggers you can deal with your anxiety more effectively. Accept that you cannot control everything and give yourself time to put things into perspective.

Reel yourself back to the present instead of focusing on what ‘might’ happen and use self-talk to rationalise what is happening. Anxiety causes you to fixate on the worst-case scenarios but where is the evidence? Differentiate what is real and what is in the mind. The best techniques to use instead of drinking are:

Anxiety is a temporary emotion, so distraction techniques will lower these uncomfortable feelings. Go for a walk, call a friend, watch a film or take a bath, whatever it takes to distract from the anxiety until it passes.

This helps to switch off those noisy intrusive thoughts. Guided meditation is easier as you can focus on a voice or other sounds that will take you away and quieten your mind.

This is the best thing for anxiety by miles. The physical and mental release will be swift and the endorphins will regulate your emotions and stabilise your mood. Not only are you diverting from what you are anxious about but you will be decreasing muscle tension and decreasing your stress hormone (cortisol).

*Writing a journal
Organise and work through your anxious thoughts by getting it all down on paper. Simple but powerful. This gives you self-awareness and acceptance of situations. This enables you to prioritise problems, fears and concerns and provides an opportunity to identify what is bothering you and gain control.

Diet and sleep will also play a big part in keeping the anxiety at bay. With all emotions it is about balance. A healthy balance, making time for a little bit of everything and putting self-care at the top of your list. All of these tips will help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, alcohol will fuel it so choose carefully.