People have many methods of trying to ease their anxiety, and alcohol is one of them. It’s used as a sort of numbing agent for uncomfortable feelings. This form of self-medication tends to be common in social situations, including large gatherings of people or something more intimate like a first date; or, it can be used to cope with anxiety about a job, money, or relationship issues.
However, this coping mechanism can result in the development of an alcohol dependency.
Can Alcohol Ease Symptoms of Anxiety?
While alcohol can lead to an immediate decrease in anxiety levels—lowering your inhibitions, causing a false sense of relaxation—drinking in excess can actually have the opposite effect, causing you to feel out of control. While it may seem like an appealing form of self-medication due to accessibility, the issue often becomes controlling the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption, as well as how dependent you become.2
Can Drinking Alcohol Cause Anxiety?
Ultimately, alcohol can cause anxiety. When you drink too much, you may do or say things that are out of character, leading to feelings of regret. Over time, drinking too much can also cause memory loss, blackouts, and brain damage. Naturally, coping with these outcomes causes stress.
Paradoxically, while alcohol can cause anxiety, anxiety can also lead to an alcohol use disorder. Someone with an anxiety disorder is three times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder at some point in their life compared to someone who has never been diagnosed with anxiety.1
How Alcohol Can Worsen Anxiety Symptoms
Initially, alcohol may mask symptoms of anxiety, but it can worsen your condition in the long run.2 Heavy drinking produces physiological changes, including affecting neurotransmitter levels in the brain, which can cause anxiety. Blackouts can also cause severe anxiety, and in extreme cases, lead to panic attacks. Lastly, alcohol leads to interrupted sleep, which can worsen existing anxiety.
How Alcohol Can Interfere With Anxiety Medications
Many anxiety medications interact with alcohol, increasing risk of drowsiness, sedation, impaired judgment, trouble concentrating, and slowed reflexes. In some cases, alcohol can cause medication to become less effective or toxic.3 Combined negative effects of alcohol and certain medications on the liver even lead to liver toxicity. Specifically, benzodiazepines combined with alcohol can lead to overdose and death.3
Alcohol Addiction & Anxiety as Co-Occurring Disorders
Alcoholism and anxiety are often co-occurring and tend to feed off each other.4 Many people with anxiety seek out ways to self-medicate with alcohol before ever turning to a mental health professional. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), about 7% of Americans use alcohol to cope with anxiety, and approximately 20% people with social anxiety disorder suffer from alcohol dependence.
Some of the signs and symptoms of an alcohol addiction include:
- Inability to control the amount of alcohol consumed
- Withdrawing from normal activities of daily life
- Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is not consumed
- Drinking even though one is aware of the negative impacts
In many cases, alcohol dependence develops when it’s used as a coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, and/or trauma. In general, it’s a commonly co-occurring disorder with other mental health conditions.5 Also, those who have a parent with an alcohol addiction are more susceptible to developing one of their own.
Treating Co-Occurring Anxiety & Alcohol Use Disorders
You can treat co-occurring anxiety disorders and alcohol use disorders with a variety of coping mechanisms, including therapy, medication, and health alternative practices like yoga and meditation. These methods work to treat underlying symptoms instead of masking them.
Speaking to a therapist can be an effective way of managing symptoms of alcohol and anxiety. One of the most effective modalities is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which works to identify and interrupt negative thought patterns. Another similar modality is dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which combines aspects of CBT and alternative mindfulness techniques. DBT is more structured and targets anxiety with mindfulness, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation.
Medication is often used in conjunction with therapy to target symptoms of anxiety, but it can be a sole treatment. Types of medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), benzodiazepines, and beta-blockers. All medications should be used with caution, especially by someone struggling with alcohol dependence, due to potentially dangerous interactions.
There are also medications that curb alcohol cravings or cause you to feel ill if you consume it.
Mindfulness exercises are a great way to quiet the mind, focus on positive affirmations, and challenge negative thought patterns. Developing healthy routines like exercise, yoga, and meditation also help you maintain a better sense of calm. When you’re experiencing anxiety, try doing a full body scan. Breathe deeply and take an inventory of where you’re holding tension; as you breathe, calm yourself and allow fear to melt away.
Final Thoughts On Alcohol & Anxiety
If you’re dealing with alcohol and anxiety, remember, you’re not alone. Reaching out to a mental health professional (or your personal medical care provider) can be a great first step in mitigating symptoms of alcohol anxiety. It is always a good idea to expand your support system, because the more people you have to help you through, the better.5 One way to find the right therapy is through an online directory.