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How Alcohol Affects Your Mental Health

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month, where we strive to break the stigma surrounding mental illness, so we want to share how alcohol affects your mental health. 

It’s probably no surprise that one-third of people with major depression also drink. Millions of people also struggle with mental health, and it’s killing about 3 million people per year according to the World Health Organization.

Mental health is about more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities though, it’s also about looking after ongoing wellness and happiness. Alcohol can make it even more difficult, and here’s why: 

Alcohol and Mental Health

With alcohol being so normalized in our culture, it’s almost too easy to forget about the negative consequences that come with drinking, including how it affects our mental health.

When someone struggles with both an alcohol use disorder and a mental health disorder, this is referred to as a co-occurring disorder or a dual diagnosis.

Often a co-occurring disorder can begin as a means of self-medication for a mental illness. For many people, symptoms of a mental illness come first and can fuel the need to drink alcohol as a way of coping with the situation. In these cases, it’s important to treat both issues simultaneously, since often a mental health disorder may be what is driving the alcohol use disorder and vice versa.


Alcohol and Anxiety Disorders

Although alcohol can override anxious feelings while drinking, the rebound effect can be far worse than your baseline level of anxiety. It’s common for people with social anxiety disorder to drink alcohol to feel more confident in social interactions.

This may help ease their anxiety in the moment, but this can lead to a dependence on alcohol during socializing, which can make long-term anxiety symptoms worse. In fact, about 20 percent of people with social anxiety disorder also suffer from alcohol dependence.

“Hangxiety,” or hangover anxiety, is the anxious feeling after a night of heavy drinking. When you’re drinking, your brain increases the effects of GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), which causes you to feel relaxed and calm. When you stop drinking, your body goes through a mini withdrawal, which is accompanied by anxiety.

Rather than looking to alcohol to cure your anxiety, try exercise or relaxation methods, such as meditation and breathing techniques. Confiding in a friend or seeking professional help to treat your anxiety are also beneficial.

woman meditating on beach


Alcohol and Depression

Alcohol is called a depressant because it reduces the functionality of the central nervous system, and slows down your whole body.

Alcohol tricks your brain into thinking that it's making you feel great by initially producing a high amount of dopamine. However, alcohol decreases the levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which is key for balancing your mood. Unusually high or low levels of these chemicals can trigger symptoms of depression.

Just because drinking alcohol is seen as a normal way of coping with difficult emotions, does not mean it is in any way effective at doing so.


Alcohol and Stress

After a long day at work, what could be more relaxing than drinking to help “take the edge off”? The reality is, drinking actually contributes to your stress. If alcohol is your primary way of coping with stress, it’s time that you found healthier ways of coping. Try going for a walk outside, since exercise is a great natural stress reliever.

Alcohol also disrupts your sleep cycle, leading you to be more tired the next day, which will cause you to feel even more stressed. Excessive drinking can also lead to financial stresses, and cause relationship problems with family and friends.

Annie Grace, in her book “This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol” says, “You drink to dull your problems, but drinking never solves your problems. It compounds them,” and “If you are truly happy and relaxed, you have no need or desire to change your state of mind.”

distressed man

Treating a Co-occurring Disorder

One thing to keep in mind: There are many benefits to an actual healing process. Don’t keep putting a band-aid on your wound. There are “tiers” of addiction, according to The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Many alcohol rehabs now use intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) to treat unique alcohol addiction issues.

Self-medicating with alcohol is not the answer. If you feel that you may be drinking more than you should, and it’s causing you to become more anxious, depressed, or stressed, you should consider taking a break from alcohol for one month.

Let’s Take a Break!
Drinking patterns don’t have to take over your life. According to Drinkaware, taking a break gives you a new perspective and makes it easier to identify the root cause of stress, anxiety, depression, and any other mental health effects in play.

Should You Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?
In some cases, especially when dealing with heavy drinking, it can be dangerous to stop cold turkey, so remember to do your research on alcohol withdrawal first and talk to a therapist if you think your dependency is too high.

Where to Find Alcohol Addiction Treatment
At Aquila, we offer dual diagnosis treatment to help treat both your mental health disorder and your alcohol or substance use disorder. If you’re ready to start the healing process, reach out to us today and we can guide you in a treatment plan that is right for you.


Understanding Dual Diagnosis