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Alcohol and Mental Health

Understanding Alcohol's Effects on Mental Health

July 19, 2023
13 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 19, 2023
13 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 19, 2023
13 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 19, 2023
13 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 19, 2023
13 min read

Have you ever used alcohol to make yourself feel better? Maybe you had a bad day at work, were a little bit down in the dumps, or were feeling anxious about an upcoming event. To help soothe yourself, you found yourself reaching for a glass of wine, bottle of beer, or favorite cocktail. 

You’re certainly not alone: many of us have learned to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism or a way to escape uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. But while alcohol might provide a temporary reprieve or mood boost, in the long term, it can cause significant damage to our mental health. Let’s take a closer look.

Is Alcohol a Depressant? Understanding How Alcohol Affects Our Brain

Drinking alcohol negatively affects nearly every bodily system, but it has a particularly detrimental effect on our brain. As soon as we start drinking, our brain’s reward system is activated, causing a flood of dopamine — that “feel good” chemical — to be released into our system. This spike in dopamine creates an immediate sense of happiness and euphoria, but it only lasts for a short while.

In fact, these effects are often followed by a “crash.” This is because alcohol is a depressant, and it disrupts our body’s natural production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which play a vital role in our thoughts, moods, and behaviors. So while we might experience a temporary mood boost, in the long run alcohol upsets the balance of the brain chemicals we need to feel good and healthy. 

Continually drinking to excess causes our body to produce less of these neurotransmitters, putting us at a greater risk for mood disorders like depression and anxiety. Sadly, this can end up perpetuating a vicious cycle, as we may want to drink more to relieve unpleasant feelings.

Mental Effects of Alcohol: Depression, Anxiety, and Stress

Regular heavy drinking is linked to symptoms of depression and can even lead to its onset. Binge drinking — defined as having four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men in one sitting — is particularly harmful, as research indicates that binge drinkers are more likely to experience depressive symptoms. Interestingly, studies have found that people who regularly drink alcohol often start to feel better within the first few weeks of stopping drinking. 

If we’re already suffering from depression, drinking alcohol can actually make our depression worse. Even small amounts of alcohol can have negative effects by lowering our levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, which help regulate our mood. Lower levels of these chemicals can make someone who is depressed even more depressed. 

Sadly, those of us who suffer from depression are more likely to abuse or become dependent on alcohol. This is because we might use alcohol as a form of self-medication. But because drinking actually changes our brain chemistry and worsens feelings of depression, it can lead to a vicious cycle.

Alcohol and Anxiety

In many ways, alcohol’s immediate calming effects are similar to those of antianxiety medications: it helps take our mind off our troubles, lowers our inhibitions, and generally makes us feel more relaxed. Alcohol actually binds to the same GABA receptors as benzodiazepines. 

But, since alcohol changes the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in our brain, it can actually worsen our anxiety in the long-term. In fact, we’ll likely feel more anxious after the alcohol wears off. Alcohol-induced anxiety — otherwise known as hangxiety — can last for several hours or even for an entire day after drinking. 

With consistent heavy drinking, our central nervous system gets used to the suppressing effect of alcohol. As alcohol leaves our system, our brain goes straight into “fight or flight” mode, which is a similar reaction as we experience with an anxiety disorder. 

Interestingly, research shows that people with alcohol use disorder find it difficult to recover from traumatic events. This may be because of the changes in brain activity and neurotransmitters caused by excessive alcohol use. In other words, alcohol changes the way our brain responds to stress and anxiety in the future. 

Effects of Alcohol on Behavior: Alcohol and Suicide

Research also shows a strong link between regular heavy drinking and suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and death from suicide. This link is partly due to alcohol’s immediate effects, such as impaired judgment and increased impulsiveness. 

Alcohol suppresses activity in the parts of our brain associated with inhibition enough for us to act on suicidal thoughts. Similarly, warning signals and second thoughts are less likely to happen for us if we’ve been drinking, leading us to actions that we might not otherwise take — including self-harm and suicide. 

The link between alcohol and suicide can also be explained by the long-term effect of alcohol on our mental health. Since heavy alcohol consumption can lead to the onset of depression or exacerbate depressive symptoms, it can make us more prone to experience suicidal thinking. 

Studies have found that many people who die by suicide have a history of both alcohol misuse and depression. Similarly, alcohol use disorders were found to be a significant factor of those medically treated after a suicide attempt, with acute alcohol intoxication present in about 30-40% of cases. 

Simply put, the combination of a worsened mood, negative thinking, and lowered inhibitions means that people are more likely to act on suicidal thoughts when consuming alcohol.

Alcohol and Stress

Another way alcohol can significantly impact our mental health is by affecting our stress levels. While we tend to associate alcohol with relaxation and stress relief, research indicates chronic alcohol use can lead to greater amounts of stress. 

When we drink alcohol, high amounts of cortisol — the stress hormone — are released in our brain. Over time, this can alter our brain chemistry, changing the way our body perceives and responds to stress. In fact, studies have found that people who drink heavily are more likely to experience higher anxiety under stress compared to people who don’t drink or drink in moderation

So while it’s true that alcohol can help us feel more relaxed in the moment, it takes a toll on our stress levels in the long run.

The Bottom Line

Alcohol has serious and wide-ranging mental effects. From increasing our risk of developing depression and anxiety (not to mention making these conditions worse) to causing greater amounts of stress, it’s clear that alcohol is probably not as beneficial to our mental well-being as we might have thought. 

If we’re used to drinking regularly, we might be surprised by how much better we’ll feel by cutting back on our alcohol consumption. If that’s something you’re looking to do, but don’t know where to start, Reframe can help.

Enhance Your Mental Health 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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