Having a drink at the end of a long day to decrease anxiety may seem like the answer, but studies have shown alcohol can actually exacerbate symptoms of anxiety. Alcohol is categorized as a depressant, meaning it depresses our Central Nervous System, leaving us feeling calmer and more relaxed. While this seems like a quick fix it can actually lead to a bigger problem: dopamine depletion.
The release of dopamine is triggered when we engage in activities we find pleasurable, such as eating chocolate or drinking alcohol, and it teaches our brain what actions to repeat, and eventually, to crave. Repeating the habit of drinking alcohol weekly or even daily begins to teach the brain that it no longer needs to put in the work to release dopamine, so it begins to rely on alcohol. All of a sudden we find ourselves depleted of dopamine and hankering for a drink. Why?
Picture a hamster wheel, and your brain is running on it in order to create your happiness hormones, like dopamine. Every day your brain runs on this wheel to produce the hormones you need to feel pleasure and happiness. Then we add alcohol into the picture. Alcohol comes up to our brain and says “Hey friend, I’ve got it from here you can go take a break,” and our brain steps down from the hamster wheel and alcohol steps in. Now at first, we are thinking ‘wow this is so nice, I get to take a break!’ But as the frequency and amount of alcohol we intake increases, our brain gets lazy and begins to rely on alcohol to run the hamster wheel. This is dopamine depletion from alcohol misuse***.*** We begin to damage our brain and alter the thresholds required for dopamine cell activation and signaling, which leads to less dopamine being released naturally.
Some symptoms of dopamine depletion:
- trouble sleeping or disturbed sleep
- low energy
- an inability to focus
- moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- feeling fatigued
- feeling demotivated
- feeling inexplicably sad or tearful
- mood swings
- feeling hopeless
- having low self-esteem
- feeling guilt-ridden
- feeling anxious
Perhaps you have experienced hangxiety before but never knew what to call it? It’s the feeling of anxiousness related to drinking the night before. This is a direct result of alcohol depleting our system, leading to increased anxiety. Alcohol may dull today's edge, but it will sharpen tomorrows. It can be helpful to remember that when we drink as a way of self-medicating or coping with an uncomfortable feeling that alcohol will only relieve us temporarily, but will cause an exacerbated effect of the emotion the day after.
The quickest way to get our brain back in our hamster wheel and replenish our dopamine system is to decrease the amount we are drinking or quit altogether. Then once our body and mind is able to recalibrate itself, it can begin to make its way back onto the wheel. It can take time for our brain to get back to its normal state, so in the meantime it can be helpful to implement practices and exercises into your life that once brought you pleasure and joy to speed the process up. This could be physical ń or cuddling up with your partner to release oxytocin. “Hacking” our happiness chemicals while our hedonic set point reaches its baseline will help us to feel better faster, and relieve some of that anxiety you have been feeling.
Other easy ways to hack into your happiness chemicals:
- Give or get a hug
- Get some sunshine
- Practice Meditation
- Spend time with a pet
- Diaphragm breathing