An alcoholic beverage is often prescribed as a remedy to settle your nerves, but does alcohol really help alleviate anxiety? Science paints a far different picture than what you might believe.
“I need a drink.”
Whether said half-joking, or dead-seriously, this phrase usually comes out after something stressful has happened. It could be a bad day at work, an afternoon wrangling cranky kids, an unexpected phone call bearing bad news, or simply waiting for results…pretty much anything that triggers that gnawing sense of anxiety, and an immediate desire to stave it off.
So you have a drink, or two – or maybe a few more. For a while, the alcohol works as it is intended, making you feel relaxed and sedated. But several hours later, or even when you wake up the next morning, the anxiety is back – and even worse. If you are wondering why drinking makes you feel even more stressed, especially the next day, it is important to better understand the connection between alcohol and anxiety.
Knowing the Nuances of Anxiety
Scientifically speaking, anxiety is an emotion we experience that triggers a stress response. The stress response manifests physically, and can result in a range of effects including:
- Racing pulse
- Nausea or digestive issues
- Shortness of breath
- Headaches or other unexplained pain
- Sleep issues
While anxiety can be a relatively short-term feeling related to a specific event, it can also be a prolonged condition. People living with a type of anxiety disorder may feel on high alert or edgy most of the time, experience panic attacks, or have significant fear or worry over seemingly normal situations. Anxiety disorders are some of the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions – in the U.S. alone, around 40 million people are living with an anxiety disorder.
How Alcohol and Anxiety Interact
With alcohol widely understood to be a form of liquid relaxation, it is no wonder that many people turn to it in times of stress. The reality is that alcohol causes a number of chemical changes in the brain that can actually have the opposite effect, which is why feeling good may suddenly pivot to feeling even more anxious.
Alcohol and Your Sleep Cycle
It’s called a “nightcap” for a reason – we often link drinking to a sound sleep. Though studies show that alcohol does allow otherwise healthy people to fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply for a period, it also interferes with REM sleep. REM sleep is considered to be a restorative sleep phase, and so missing out on this can make you feel drowsy and unable to focus the next day.
Lack of sleep is also a key contributor to anxiety – who hasn’t felt the effects of a bad night’s sleep on their mood and overall reactions? The more you drink, the less REM sleep you get, and the more anxious you feel the following day.
Alcohol and Your Neurotransmitters
Feeling buzzed or drunk comes from alcohol’s effects on a variety of neurotransmitters in our brains. Alcohol causes a rise in serotonin, a mood booster that makes us feel happy and relaxed. It also causes gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to drop, which accounts for the loss in inhibition that often comes along with a few drinks. As the effects of alcohol wear off, these levels start to go back to normal – but the drop in serotonin can negatively impact your mood, and the rise in GABA can make you feel stressed and anxious.
Alcohol and the Dreaded Hangover
Your head is spinning, your heart is pounding, you are sweaty and nauseous – wait, are you hungover or having an anxiety attack? That is the very question your body is asking when you’re fighting through the ill-effects of last night’s revelry. If you are already inclined to feeling anxious, you are even more likely to feel this way after drinking.
Rethinking Your Relationship with Alcohol
If your go-to method for stress relief is a few drinks, you are conditioning your body to rely on alcohol for relaxation, when in fact it often can exacerbate your anxiety. The reality is that if you regularly feel anxious after drinking, you probably shouldn’t be drinking. Instead of going straight for a bottle, try a few quick techniques to calm yourself down.
For example, a few easy ways to help immediately quell anxiety are:
- Eat something – low blood sugar can make you feel anxious and irritable. Instead of pouring a cocktail, eat something easily digestible, and follow it up with a healthy meal with lots of protein.
- Take a breath – there are many different types of breathing exercises, but ones like the 3-4-5 method focus on a deep inhale, followed by holding the breath for a short time and then going into a longer exhale. This helps immediately disarm your stress response.
- Go for a walk – if you are able to step out, going for a walk activates a range of stress-relievers, such as exercise and being outdoors. A simple change of scene can do wonders when we need a perspective reset.
- Drink a glass of water – dehydration can actually make symptoms of anxiety worse. Instead of reaching for a cup of coffee or a beer, pour a big glass of water and get hydrated.
For the long-term, you will likely need a more detailed plan of how to identify those and rework your coping mechanisms to shift away from that problematic “drink or two.” It may seem daunting at first, but there are plenty of benefits to rethinking your relationship with alcohol, including:
- Retraining your brain – right now your brain is conditioned to believe that alcohol is the “medicine” it needs to relieve stress, even if that isn’t how it actually works! Changing this habit forms new pathways in the brain that reroute to healthier alternatives.
- Finding better ways to cope – if a drink is your typical option for stress relief, you are limiting the possibilities for other, effective coping mechanisms that have the added benefit of not making you feel terrible the next day.
- Getting to the root of your anxiety – nothing about drinking helps you uncover what’s really making you feel anxious. By taking alcohol out of the equation and confronting the things that are bothering you, you have the opportunity of addressing your anxiety directly – and overcoming it!
Stepping away from drinking may be harder than you realise, and you might find that you need professional support to help you make the transition from using alcohol to treat your anxiety to practising other methods. There are many different therapeutic options available to help you successfully integrate new coping mechanisms into your life, and identify and manage the sources of your anxiety.
Learning to Relax at The Dawn
At The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab Thailand, we understand the pressures and stressors of life that make it easy to lean on alcohol to cope. Our highly personalised, holistic treatment involves exploring and addressing the root causes of your anxiety and alcohol use, while also guiding you through a wide variety of new coping techniques. In addition to a range of modern psychotherapies, we offer activities like yoga, meditation, art therapy, and fitness training to help you find new ways to manage stress and regain your health.
Give us a call today and learn more about your options for real stress-relief at The Dawn.