Updated: Jan 17
What You Need to Know about Alcohol and Anxiety
Media and culture encourages us to have a drink to relax. And yes, there’s some truth to the idea that alcohol can reduce stress; alcohol is a sedative and a depressant that affects the central nervous system.
Initially, drinking can quiet fears and take your mind off of your troubles and some people report it helps them feel less shy, gives them a boost in mood, and makes them feel more relaxed. For many, alcohol’s immediate effects can be similar to those of anti-anxiety medications.
Occasionally unwinding with alcohol isn’t necessarily dangerous, but once you start drinking, you can build a tolerance to the de-stressing effects of alcohol. This can make anxiety and stress even more difficult to cope with.
There are several reasons why alcohol tends to disturb your peace of mind. Embarrassing yourself at an office party may be an obvious danger, but there's also a molecular explanation. Alcohol causes changes in your brain chemicals, including gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) that’s involved in regulating anxiety. Alcohol-induced anxiety can last for several hours, or even for an entire day after drinking.
Using alcohol to cope with social anxiety disorder can be dangerous. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), about 7 percent of Americans have this form of anxiety. With social anxiety, people often find social situations unbearable so it's not uncommon for people with social anxiety disorder to drink alcohol to cope with social interactions. Doing this can lead to a dependence on alcohol during socializing, which can make anxiety symptoms worse.
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can also have noticeable physical and mental consequences. Over time, consuming too much alcohol can lead to blackouts, loss of memory, and even brain damage (especially if it causes other health problems, such as liver damage, immune system damage, and even nerve damage). These issues can create more anxiety as you cope with their symptoms.
Tips for Drinking in Moderation
Prolonged heavy drinking often contributes to anxiety. The CDC recommends limiting yourself to one drink a day for women and two for men on the days you do drink.
Try these techniques to limit alcohol consumption:
1. Plan ahead. Decide what you’re going to drink before you get started. Maybe you’ll skip wine with dinner, so you can have a glass of port afterwards.
2. Slow down. Sip your Margherita. Order a glass of water in between if you consume more than one alcoholic beverage.
3. Eat food. Filling up on food allows your body to absorb alcohol more gradually. Fats and proteins are especially useful for slowing the process down. On the other hand, skip the salty snacks that will make you thirstier and more dehydrated.
4. Enjoy other activities. If you’re used to bar hopping on date nights, go for a hike or visit a science museum instead. Spend your leisure time working on hobbies rather than drinking beer while watching TV.
5. Resist social pressure. Rehearse what to say if someone asks why you’re turning down a drink. Let your family and friends know you’re trying to cut back, if that is comfortable for you.
6. Take time off. Celebrate Dry January or the abstinence days of your choice. Taking a break from alcohol gives your body and mind time to recover.
Other Tips for Coping with Anxiety
Using alcohol to manage anxiety is likely to backfire. Replace cocktails with strategies that are safer and more effective, such as these:
Take sensible risks. Avoiding things that may be adding to your anxiety. Facing your fears teaches you that you’re strong enough to handle life’s challenges. Start with small projects and work your way up.
Get enough sleep; you’re more resilient when you’re well rested. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of high-quality sleep each night.
Eat a variety of good foods at regular intervals. Nutrition is one of the basic building blocks of a healthy body and a healthy mind. Use foods rich in fiber to stabilize your blood sugar and experiment with foods high in certain minerals, like leafy greens for magnesium and egg yolks for zinc.
Exercise regularly. Daily movement is a great way to use up nervous energy and boost your moods.
Seek help. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues, affecting almost 20% of the adult population. Search for a therapist who has experience treating anxiety from a holistic standpoint.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, a glass of wine may relax you in the short term, but there is often a "kickback" or "rebound" effect that makes the anxiety even worse later and it’s still important to deal with underlying issues. Adopt healthy habits for managing stress and talk with a professional if you need more help.