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Alcohol and Health

Why Does Drinking Alcohol Make Anxiety Worse?

October 3, 2022
10 min read
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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.
October 3, 2022
10 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.
October 3, 2022
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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.
October 3, 2022
10 min read
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Reframe Content Team
October 3, 2022
10 min read

Anxiety can often make us feel like we’re trapped. Our thoughts race, creating an incessant chatter that runs through our minds. Our chests tighten, and our hearts beat increasingly faster. Our attention narrows, so that all we’re able to focus on is the future (and everything that can go wrong!). These emotions and sensations can feel like they’ll never pass, that they’re our reality.

We all deal with anxiety, but when this anxiety is prolonged and difficult to control, it can point to an anxiety disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 19.1% of U.S. adults had an anxiety disorder in the previous year, and approximately 31.1% of U.S. adults will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. These disorders can be caused by a variety of factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, and life experiences.

Though we often turn to alcohol to relieve anxiety, this ends up perpetuating — and worsening — our anxiety in the long run. Let’s find out why.

Alcohol and Anxiety: An Overview

Several factors play into anxiety. We may have a genetic predisposition for it, and our life experiences and environment can trigger symptoms. Stressful events, such as losing a job or going through a divorce, can also trigger anxiety. Other risk factors for anxiety include depression, alcohol misuse, and chronic medical conditions.

There’s a common tendency to grab a drink to “take the edge off.” This temporary respite from anxiety can keep us reaching for the bottle whenever we need to quiet the internal noise — after a hectic day at the office, before a crowded social event, in preparation for a presentation. Over time, “taking the edge off” can become a bad habit, making us dependent on alcohol to relieve our anxiety. Not only this, but our brain chemistry changes: we start experiencing even more anxiety with prolonged alcohol use. We end up in a complicated cycle, and this can be tougher to break than the anxiety alone.

Alcohol and Anxiety: Neurotransmitter Imbalances

Most people are aware that drinking alcohol can cause short-term effects, like feelings of relaxation or sleepiness. What many people don't realize is that with habitual use, alcohol also throws off the delicate chemical balance inside our brains.

What exactly is going on here? To find out, we turned to Dr. Deborah Vinall, PsyD, LMFT. She sums it up by saying: “Alcohol temporarily increases levels of the neurotransmitters and neuromodulators GABA, glycine, and adenosine (associated with decreasing anxiety), dopamine (implicated in motivation), and serotonin (connected to feelings of happiness). However, once the temporary effects of alcohol leave the system, production of all of these neurotransmitters is impaired, leaving [us] more anxious, less motivated, and at increased risk of depression.”

Dr. Vinall also discusses “hangxiety” — which, although not a formal medical diagnosis, describes the increased feelings of anxiety that can arise during a hangover. “Such feelings are exacerbated by worry about the effects of [our] uninhibited actions during the drinking period as [we] examine them soberly,” she says. This can also lead to feelings of embarrassment or shame.

Alcohol and Anxiety: Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal can also be a major culprit behind anxiety. Withdrawal is a particularly vulnerable period for the brain and body, as uncomfortable symptoms — sweating, shaking, sleep difficulties, and mood difficulties — manifest. People who are dependent on alcohol may find that they need to drink again to counteract these sensations.

While a drastic approach to cutting back can seem like the easiest answer, it can actually be medically dangerous, intensifying the body’s withdrawal symptoms. When changing your drinking habits, start by cutting back gradually — decreasing your intake by 10% a week is a safe starting point.

Alcohol and Anxiety: Early Introductions

People with anxiety are more likely to start drinking alcohol at a young age. This can be due to a variety of factors:

  • Untreated mental health issues (i.e., social anxiety, depression, PTSD)
  • Unsafe living environments
  • Genetic factors (i.e., a parent lives with an alcohol use disorder)
  • Lack of coping mechanisms to handle stressors

For teens with these issues, drinking alcohol is a way to self-medicate their symptoms. Since their brains are still developing, young people are more susceptible to becoming dependent on alcohol. This can lead to dangerous consequences, like an increased risk of drunk driving, engaging in violent behavior, acquiring sexually transmitted diseases, and long-term addiction.

Furthermore, peer pressure and social tendencies to encourage binge drinking can also lead to drinking in young people with anxiety.

Alcohol and Anxiety: Sleep Deprivation

The relationship between alcohol, anxiety, and sleep is complex. Anxiety can make our sleep worse, which can make us turn to alcohol to cope with the increased anxiety we experience the following day. Alcohol messes with our sleep, which can make us feel anxious, and therefore, we grab another nightcap the following evening. Poor sleep… well, you get the idea.

What, specifically, does alcohol do to our sleep? Dr. Vinall says, “[Alcohol’s] effects on the brain and the extra work your body is doing to metabolize the alcohol causes reduced sleep quality, with decreased slow-wave (deep) sleep, and more restless REM (dream) sleep and periods of wakefulness.” This can explain why we feel unrefreshed the next morning.

Dr. Harold Hong, a board-certified psychiatrist and Medical Director of New Waters Recovery, also points out another potential issue. “Because alcohol is a diuretic, it can lead to frequent trips to the bathroom,” he says. “These disruptions in sleep can worsen symptoms of anxiety.”

Important Points To Keep in Mind

We know that the relationship between alcohol and anxiety can be complicated. Dr. Hong wants individuals to know that some of us are more vulnerable to alcohol dependency than others. “Those with a family history of alcoholism or addiction, those with mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, and individuals who have experienced trauma are at a greater risk of developing drinking problems,” he says.

“If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use, do seek professional help,” says Dr. Hong. “A qualified healthcare provider can provide an individualized treatment plan that takes into account your specific needs and circumstances. This could include inpatient or outpatient treatment, psychotherapy, support groups, lifestyle changes, medications, and other measures to ensure a safe and healthy recovery.”

Tips To Cut Back on Alcohol Use

Though anxiety can be physically and emotionally taxing, we can support our bodies by cutting back on alcohol. This may not magically cure our anxiety, but we can attest to the possibility of it dramatically reducing your symptoms. In fact, several of our users have mentioned improvements in their mental health — specifically, reduction of their anxiety symptoms — as one of the biggest benefits of cutting back.

So, what are a few foundational steps you can take to start cutting back on alcohol? If you’re new to the game, here’s a good place to start.

  • Set limits for yourself and stick to them
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic ones
  • Avoid trigger situations where you're likely to drink too much
  • Find new hobbies and activities that don't involve drinking

Okay, these all sound great… but how do we go about practicing them? We’ve got you! 

When you join Reframe, we’ll give you a structured, scientifically-supported program to help you reduce your alcohol consumption. There’s our Drink Tracker, insightful daily readings, community support through the Forum chat and meetings, and so much more! And with our new AI feature, you can ask questions at any time of the day — from learning a new mocktail recipe to figuring out how to cope with a craving.

Even small changes in your drinking habits can make a big difference in your overall mood and health. So take that first step! Allow yourself to move toward a life that allows you to be your best, most vibrant self.

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