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Alcohol and Mental Health

How Does Alcohol Affect Our Mental Health?

July 12, 2023
12 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 12, 2023
12 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 12, 2023
12 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 12, 2023
12 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 12, 2023
12 min read

Have you ever turned to alcohol to help you feel better? Maybe you had a bad day at work or were down in the dumps because of a breakup, so you popped open a bottle of wine or beer in the hopes of lifting your spirits.

For many of us, drinking alcohol can help lighten our mood, reduce our stress, and calm us down — at least for a little while. But while alcohol might make us feel better initially, in the long term it can cause problems for our mental health. In fact, it can even increase our current stress, anxiety, and depression.

What are the psychological effects of alcohol? Why do we tend to feel depressed after drinking? And what is the link between alcohol and stress, as well as between alcohol and anxiety? Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between alcohol and mental health. 

How Alcohol Causes Poor Mental Health

Research shows that heavy drinkers are more likely to develop mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. This is largely because alcohol is a depressant that disrupts the brain’s delicate balance of neurotransmitters that affect our feelings, thoughts, and behavior. 

While alcohol can produce feelings of happiness and excitement in the short-term thanks to the immediate release of the “feel good” hormone dopamine, those feelings are fleeting and quickly wear off. Alcohol is a depressant, and chemical changes in our brain can soon lead to more negative feelings such as anger, depression, or anxiety — regardless of how we were feeling before we started drinking.

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Studies indicate that drinking persistently and excessively can increase our risk of developing major depressive disorder (MDD). It can also aggregate symptoms of pre-existing depression, endangering our health and well-being. Interestingly, people with depression who drink alcohol often start to feel better within the first few weeks of quitting drinking. 

Similarly, alcohol and anxiety have a complex relationship. Alcohol can exacerbate anxiety because of its effect on gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a brain chemical that normally has a relaxing effect. While small amounts of alcohol can stimulate GABA and cause feelings of relaxation, heavy drinking depletes GABA, causing increased tension and feelings of panic. Some of us might even experience “hangxiety” after a night of drinking. 

Furthermore, while many of us tend to turn to alcohol for relaxation and stress-relief, research indicates that alcohol enhances our stress over the long-term. In fact, alcohol triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, altering our brain chemistry and changing the way our body responds to stress in the future. 

Alcohol and Mental Health

Mental Health and Alcohol Misuse

Interestingly, research also shows that people with severe mental health issues are more likely to have substance abuse issues, such as alcohol use disorder. One study showed that 25 percent of people who sought treatment for panic disorders had a history of alcohol dependence. 

Another study noted that more than one in four adults living with serious mental health problems — such as depression, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, and personality disorder — also have a substance use problem. This is likely because people with mental health issues try to “self-medicate,” and drink to deal with difficult feelings or symptoms. 

For example, if someone is depressed, they might start drinking as a way to cope. While alcohol might provide some relief at first, it often increases depressive symptoms in the long-term. This can then lead to more drinking in an attempt to reduce worsening depression, creating a vicious cycle of alcohol misuse and depression fueling one another.

It’s worth noting, however, that we don’t have to suffer from clinical depression or have an anxiety disorder to experience alcohol’s negative effects. They can occur even with the moderate levels of alcohol consumption typical of social drinkers free of mental illness. 

Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

We’ve mentioned alcohol misuse, but what about alcohol use disorder (AUD) — how does it fit into the picture? What are the effects of alcoholism, and is it considered a mental illness?

The line between misuse and the dependence characteristic of AUD can be a bit blurry. However, alcoholism is indeed considered to be a mental illness by medical professionals. It can co-occur with other mental health disorders (such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder) either as a contributing factor, a consequence, or a concurrent condition. 

Mental Health Effects of Alcoholism

Regardless of how it’s categorized, alcohol misuse — even when it doesn’t rise to the level of AUD — has profound effects on our mental health. Here’s the gist:

  • Effects on cognition and memory. We all know that alcohol causes disinhibition and dulls our reflexes. These effects can be attributed to the depressant effects it has on the central nervous system. By temporarily slowing down the prefrontal cortex, alcohol affects our ability to make decisions and think clearly. Moreover, it affects the hippocampus, making it difficult to form new memories (and, in severe cases, causing blackouts).
  • Depression and anxiety. Even though the rush of dopamine we initially get from alcohol might make us feel uplifted for a short time, eventually this effect backfires. As the depressant effects of alcohol kick in, we are more likely to feel down. At the same time, as the brain tries to rebalance itself, we are likely to experience rebound anxiety the next day, sometimes referred to as hangxiety. Over time, the effects get more severe. Existing depression and anxiety tend to get worse with alcohol misuse. We might also start to develop symptoms of both conditions even if we didn’t experience them before. 
  • Dependence and withdrawal. As the brain and body get used to the presence of alcohol, dependence sets in — the brain comes to expect the boost in dopamine and GABA that alcohol provides. If alcohol is suddenly removed, we can experience withdrawal symptoms, which include nausea, headaches, shakiness, and general unease. If our dependency has reached severe levels, we could even be looking at dangerous symptoms such as seizures or delirium tremens (DTs).

As we can see, the effects of alcohol misuse on our mental health are profound. Now, let’s see what we can do to restore our well-being.

Tips for Enhancing Our Mental Health

Given alcohol’s adverse effect on mental health, one of the best things we can do to support our mental health is to reduce our alcohol consumption or quit drinking altogether. If we struggle with anxiety, depression, or stress, alcohol will only exacerbate these issues. 

There are plenty of other things we can do to support our mental well-being and deal with stress that don’t involve drinking. Here are just a few: 

  • Get moving. Physical activity releases endorphins that boost our mood and relieve stress. Experts recommend getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week and 2 days of muscle strengthening activity. But even just going for a walk can help us feel better. 
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness, or paying attention to the present moment, has been shown to help reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. Even something as simple as mindful breathing can help. We can do this by focusing our attention on our breath, slowly breathing in, holding our breath for a few seconds, and slowly breathing out. There are also many apps and guided meditations out there that we can turn to for help. (We have a collection on the Reframe app to explore!)
  • Prioritize sleep. Sleep is vital for our mental health, helping to consolidate memory, regulate mood, and recharge our brain. We should aim to get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. It can also be helpful to develop an evening routine that promotes relaxation, with light stretching, journaling, taking a hot bath, or doing meditation.

If you’re looking to cut back on your alcohol consumption and improve your mental health, Reframe can help you replace alcohol with healthier lifestyle habits that support your physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Start Thriving With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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