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Here’s What Happens When You Soothe Anxiety with Alcohol

The “hard stuff” makes things harder for your mind.

It’s no surprise that many people turn to a strong cocktail or a glass of wine when they’re feeling anxious or stressed. Anxiety makes your mind race, race, race, and alcohol helps you find calm, calm, calm. It’s an intuitive short-term remedy, yet relying on booze can backfire. 

Many people with anxiety disorders or chronic stress will use alcohol to escape their troubling, panicky thoughts, but the problem is, this escape is only temporary. The anxiety may actually *increase* within a few hours of drinking due to everything going on in the central nervous system. That’s why you might feel more anxious the morning after heavy drinking. (Here are more effects of a night of binge drinking.)

The Science Behind Alcohol + Anxiety

Alcohol works like a sedative to the central nervous system. It acts on neurotransmitters in the body, altering the body’s natural messaging system to change your behaviors, perception, and thinking. It also affects your serotonin levels, which has a major effect on mood.

Alcohol can affect your anxiety levels in more indirect ways as well. For example, a couple cocktails after work might intefere with your sleep—even if you went to bed at a reasonable hour. Alcohol in the body can inhibit your ability to enter REM sleep, which is the most restorative stage of sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. It can also affect your circadian rhythms, causing you to wake up throughout the night.

This lack of sleep quality and quantity is known to exacerbate anxiety symptoms. In one study, three-fourths of surveyed adults said that their sleep problems (such as trouble falling or staying asleep) made their stress and anxiety worse, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

Alcohol Use Disorder + Anxiety

The more you drink, the more and more alcohol you might need to get the desired effect. Because self-medicating anxious thoughts with alcohol is so common, people with anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorders, compared to those without anxiety, according to the ADAA.

Alcohol use disorder is defined as a compulsive urge for alcohol, a loss of control over how much you’re drinking, and withdrawal symptoms when sober. Compulsive is the key word: Compulsions are irresistible, often feeling like you’re being forced to do it against your own wishes. That means it takes more than "discipline" to break the addiction.

Alcohol use disorder and anxiety disorders are each difficult to treat on their own, but they’re especially tough in combination. Anxious thoughts, as previously mentioned, strengthen the desire to drink. Alcohol becomes an outlet, and when you try to take that outlet away, the anxiety becomes even more acute—and thus makes the desire for alcohol even stronger.

Similarly, abstaining from alcohol can bring about withdrawal symptoms, which often mimic and worsen anxiety. Withdrawal symptoms include trembling, increased heart rate, and sweating—all things that can trick your body into thinking you’re severely anxious. 

While happy hour drinks can soothe your mind after a frantic day, be mindful of how much (and how often) you’re turning to booze. Try to find healthier outlets, such as meditation, exercise, creative endeavors, or speaking to a therapist. (Find out what to expect at your first therapy appointment here.)

Duration: 1:24. Last Updated On: Aug. 27, 2019, 12:28 p.m.
Reviewed by: Mera Goodman, MD . Review date: Aug. 14, 2019
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