The Relationship Between Anxiety and Alcohol Use

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Anxiety is the body’s natural response to a stressful situation. It’s a feeling of fear or nervousness about what might happen. People usually use this term whenever they feel uneasy about a situation that is not in their comfort zone. However, if feelings of anxiety are extreme, last for more than 6 months, and get in the way of your life, there is a possibility that you have Anxiety Disorder.


Distinct anxiety disorders, if left untreated, can be dangerous and harmful to other people. An anxiety disorder tends to disrupt the central nervous system (CNS), triggering an accelerated heart rate, increased blood flow, and even pushing the brain to extreme exhaustion. To treat severe anxiety medically, doctors can prescribe CNS depressants like benzodiazepines. The depressants lower neurotransmission levels in different areas of the brain to calm down a person with anxiety. 


However, if a person cannot get a prescription or medication for their anxiety disorder, it’s common for them to turn to alcohol because it has similar calming effects. While alcohol does seem to work in those cases, the truth is that the results are only temporary and can eventually lead to severe problems and consequences.


In the US, there are an estimated over 40 million Americans who suffer from an anxiety disorder at one point in their lives. One in five of these individuals claim that they use alcohol to cope with their stress and situation.


The relationship between alcohol and anxiety, although common, holds a dangerous path that can lead a person to suffer from alcohol abuse, addiction, and even death.


 How Does Alcohol Affect Anxiety?


Alcohol is a depressant and a sedative that can reduce activity stimulation in the central nervous system, which can cause a temporary relaxing sensation. Since the effects of alcohol wear off fast, people tend to take more significant amounts of the substance, leading to tolerance and dependence on alcohol to calm down.


Alcohol also changes serotonin levels and other neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate a person’s mental health and reward system. A dysregulated reward system can worsen anxiety, especially when the effects wear off. Alcohol-induced anxiety can last for hours, even a whole day after a person drinks. 


Hangovers can also trigger anxiety and cause psychological symptoms as the body processes the alcohol. There is an imbalance of chemicals in the brain caused by alcohol consumption. Feelings of depression, agitation, and extreme nervousness ensue when this imbalance triggers them


Alcohol in the end does not help a person cope with anxiety but simply numbs down emotions. Instead of a solution, it simply becomes a distraction to deal with stress. This builds a dependence on the substance and makes the anxiety symptoms even worse especially when the effects of alcohol subside.


According to research, 20% of people diagnosed with alcohol dependence also suffer from an anxiety disorder. 


Aside from needing alcohol when faced with potential anxiety-inducing situations, the following are signs of alcohol dependence:


  •     Requiring a drink to start the day
  •     Excessive drink for over 4 days a week
  •     Heavy drinking at every get-together
  •     Inability to stop drinking
  •     Consuming 5 or more alcoholic beverages a day
  •     Mood swings
  •     Withdrawal symptoms



Increased anxiety is also a symptom of withdrawal from alcohol. When an individual suddenly stops drinking after a long period of consuming large amounts of alcohol, anxiety can worsen and be a side effect of alcohol withdrawal.


 Other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:


  •     Shaking hands
  •     Sweating
  •     Increased heart rate
  •     Nausea
  •     Vomiting
  •     Seizures
  •     Intense craving for alcohol



Will My Anxiety Get Better if I Stop Drinking?


In a lot of cases, alcohol can replace the brain’s reaction to cope with stress on its own. When an individual quits drinking alcohol, after the withdrawal symptoms are over, the brain usually does not have healthy coping strategies even when it encounters mild stresses. A person’s ability to manage stress and anxiety will be weaker without alcohol.

The natural reaction is to go back to alcohol when encountering the stress of the real world again. This is a difficult problem to deal with, especially since coping skills must be re-learned by the brain intentionally. Retaining or even developing an anxiety disorder for these cases is still high.


However, many treatment options are available to deal with an anxiety disorder. Treatment must be catered to the type of anxiety an individual has. For social anxiety or social phobia, therapy is recommended as well as medications like sertraline, or Zoloft. For generalized anxiety disorder, your doctor may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT.)


A health care professional may also prescribe specific medications to treat your anxiety. However, just because anxiety can be treated, doesn’t exactly mean that it is curable. What you can do is make lifestyle changes and habits to help you reduce your anxiety as well as learn to manage it when it manifests.



How Long Does Anxiety Last After You Quit Drinking?


Alcohol withdrawal itself can induce anxiety and panic attacks. Withdrawal anxiety is difficult, but generally stems from your brain’s stress when it is no longer relying on alcohol to relax. Because the substance has indeed altered your brain functions over time, a lot of physical changes and withdrawal symptoms can cause anxiety. 


However, some doctors may use anxiety medications to help people withdraw from alcohol safely. These medications, known as benzodiazepines, have similar relaxing effects to alcohol and can reduce withdrawal symptoms while helping a person quit alcohol. Benzodiazepines can be used gradually, and eventually, wean off of it.


It is hard to say how long anxiety can last after a person stops drinking alcohol. This is mainly due to various factors like how long a person was dependent on alcohol, genetics, chemical changes in the brain because of alcohol, and whether or not an anxiety disorder was present before the alcohol dependence. 


Quitting alcohol can also lead to long-term anxiety because of extended withdrawal symptoms, known as protracted withdrawal. To deal with this, one must consult health care professionals and get recommendations from your doctor.


Treatment varies from person to person, and it’s vital you find the right medical care suited for you to achieve recovery.


What’s The Best Way to Lessen My Anxiety?


Alcohol-related problems may be an indication of much more serious underlying medical and psychological conditions. When ignored, these problems can spring up and affect different aspects of life. Anxiety can definitely ruin careers and relationships when left unchecked.


If your loved one is experiencing alcohol-related anxiety, it’s best to reach out to addiction treatment centers to help build a support group for them. Check out our alcohol detox, drug detox, and other rehabilitation services to get your loved one’s life back on track.


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