How Does Alcohol Affect Anxiety?

By: Nicole Slaughter Graham, Contributor

Anxiety produces uncomfortable mental and physical symptoms—a racing mind, future-tripping, sometimes catastrophic thoughts, a racing heart, palpitations, sweating, weakness. It’s no wonder why someone experiencing anxiety might reach for alcohol to quell their racing heart and mind. 

The experience of anxiety, especially for those who have acute anxiety or deal with an anxiety disorder, is extremely uncomfortable in the body and the mind. Once the mind is calmed, the body typically follows.

“Anxiety puts the brain into overdrive,” says Amenah Arman, a Nationally Certified Counselor and Holistic Psychotherapist in Atlanta, GA. “Some folks have mild forms of angst, others have debilitating anxiety. Regardless of the severity of anxiety, alcohol swoops in and it slows down the brains functioning. It relaxes the nerves and it loosens up one’s inhibition.”

And let’s face it: alcohol is easily accessible, doesn’t require a script from a doctor, and is relatively inexpensive. Coupled with the speed at which it works, alcohol is considered a go-to for relief by many. But a quick fix is all alcohol provides, and it can actually make anxiety worse over time, says Dr. Scott M. Hyman, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Albizu University. 

“When someone starts relying on alcohol to deal with problems, they’re not really engaging in problem-focused coping,” Hyman says. Alcohol, he continued, addresses the symptoms of anxiety and provides momentary relief for those symptoms, but it doesn’t address the root cause of the anxiety. 

What’s more, excessive use of alcohol can actually make the symptoms of anxiety more intense. Drinking alcohol affects the brain’s reward system, which is well documented, but it can also affect the brain’s stress response system as well. 

Hyman notes that the reward system becomes depressed while the stress response system becomes heightened when a person begins to rely on alcohol to cope with anxiety. 

“Biologically, you’re changing the brain,” says Hyman of prolonged or excessive drinking. “Chronic alcohol use can actually lead to a more negative emotional state.” This, he said, actually changes a person’s natural baseline, so their ability to deal with stress and the symptoms of anxiety actually lessens over time. 

So what does this mean for someone dealing with an anxiety or anxiety-related disorder? Anxiety disorders all have one thing in common, said Hyman: the exaggerated perception of a threat. Alcohol use will likely magnify the symptoms of the disorder. Here’s a look at a few disorders and how alcohol might have an impact.

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Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety

For those who suffer from a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), symptoms are far-reaching. Someone who has GAD might deal with anything from ruminating on the worst possible outcome to being highly sensitive in a social situation as possible symptoms.

Using alcohol could heighten any of these symptoms, especially if someone is dependent on the substance to manage tough emotions. One example, says Arman, is that the comedown from alcohol can make a social situation unbearable. “Once the alcohol wears off, one may begin hyper fixating on what was said, what actions they may or may not have taken, how others have perceived them.” 

Arman says this applies to someone with social anxiety as well. What’s more, since alcohol is a depressant and can change someone’s baseline, it might cause someone with social anxiety to isolate more than they might otherwise, which can be detrimental to mental health. 

“Withdrawals from alcohol use,” says Arman, “also makes anxiety worse.”

Panic Disorder

Panic attacks and strong bouts of uncontrollable fear are intense and incredibly scary. They often make those who suffer from panic disorder feel like they’re having a heart attack or some other sort of medical emergency. Often after the panic attack subsides, the body and mind are both exhausted.

Using alcohol to calm anxiety might seem like a good idea at first, but when it comes to panic disorder, there’s no doubt that alcohol just makes things worse. “Alcohol can cause panic attacks and aggravate panic disorder,” Arman says. 

More panic attacks are exactly the opposite of what someone with panic disorder needs, not to mention dealing with the exhaustion that follows. 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Excessive and oftentimes unreasonable thoughts and fears (which is a characteristic of many anxiety disorders) are at the root of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Those thoughts and fears then cause a person to take compulsive action, which can look like excessive hand-washing or unnecessary organization and reorganization. 

OCD, when untreated, can stop a person from living life. Compulsive behavior is hard enough on its own, and it’s true that alcohol, being a depressant, might seem like a good fix at first, but the opposite is true.

“Obsessive-compulsive behaviors are magnified under the influence of alcohol, which causes individuals to intensify their compulsive behavior,” Arman says. It’s actually documented, she says, that people with OCD report an increase in compulsive behaviors after alcohol use.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has acute anxiety directly related to a traumatic situation they’ve faced. Oftentimes, this means that they deal with flashbacks, which can be set off by the most (seemingly) benign of circumstances. For example, someone who suffers from PTSD after serving in the military might experience intense flashbacks due to loud noises. 

Since alcohol is a depressant and is known to dampen the senses, it’s often thought of as a good antidote to dealing with flashbacks. However, Arman says, the opposite might actually be true. “Individuals who are experiencing PTSD may experience more intense flashbacks, which may cause a negative feedback loop.” 

This “feedback loop,” she says, looks like someone drinking to numb the stress but finding that the flashbacks are actually more acute, and then drinking more in another attempt to numb the intensity. This type of vicious cycle, says Hyman, is a slippery slope that can lead to alcohol dependence.

* * * 

At the end of the day, alcohol isn’t the answer to cure your anxiety. Instead of using the depressant to deal with the symptoms of anxiety, it’s important to seek out help to understand the root of this important and often overlooked mental health issue. Practicing mindfulness, embarking on creative endeavors, and learning how to work with anxiety are key to a happy and healthy life, but sometimes we don’t know where to start.

“Therapy. Therapy. Therapy,” says Arman, and Hyman agrees.

“This isn’t about getting rid of anxiety. It’s about managing it to the point where it’s helping you and not hurting you,” he says, and a qualified, trained therapist can help.

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