In this Tips and Hacks series, we’re talking about the relationship between alcohol and anxiety – one of the most common issues that our Daybreak members talk about. Often it is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario – what came first, and the answer is fascinating and complex. So, let’s get started.
Social Anxiety: One big factor for many people’s drinking is social anxiety – since alcohol blocks the anxiety chemical glutamate as well as lowers inhibitions and temporarily boosts mood, it can feel like a magic bullet for those social situations where we are feeling worried about fitting in or talking to new people. Many people with social anxiety will describe finding it hard to stop at one or two drinks in these situations, since they are relying on alcohol to help them relax. Unfortunately, we know that once we drink a certain amount, we then do risk being judged or making big mistakes – since the responsible part of our brain is offline.
Stress & Trauma: Research into the association between stress, trauma and issues with alcohol tells us that people who’ve been through traumatic or stressful experiences in the past – or who are currently stressed – are much more vulnerable to the mood-altering effects of alcohol and other drugs. Many people with chronic stress or anxiety regularly feel flat, scattered or distressed and so something that reliably puts this on pause can be really compelling. Many people will continue to use alcohol even when they are aware it is actually making things worse in their lives because it is the only thing they feel helps with those strong emotions.
Hangxiety: So far we’ve talked about how anxiety and stress predispose us to drinking but it goes the other way too! You might have woken up after a night of drinking feeling quite anxious and on edge – this is because alcohol blocks the chemical, glutamate, in our brain, which is responsible for anxiety. When we go to sleep and our brain works to restore the balance of brain chemistry, it recognises that there is a shortage of glutamate – and so works to produce more. This means that we often wake up with a surplus of glutamate in our brain after drinking and have to live with ‘hangxiety’ the following day – biological anxiety that makes it really hard to focus or enjoy our day. Those with existing anxiety disorders might find this particularly uncomfortable, as you can imagine.
Withdrawal: Finally, one more way that alcohol and anxiety interact. For many people who are physically or psychologically dependent on alcohol, withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety. For those who are physically dependent, they may start to feel physically anxious when alcohol is wearing off in their system and for those who are psychologically dependent, they may feel anxious around the time that they would normally drink.
So if some of these points have resonated with you, what next? Well, the good news is that being aware of the relationship between anxiety and alcohol use is a big part of the puzzle. It will be useful for you to trace back what seemed to come first – anxiety or alcohol – and look at the changes that you’re willing to make. It is highly recommended that you get the help of your GP or a mental health professional for this, as they can talk through what to do first. The important thing to remember is that the two are often connected and getting some support for one of these things often results in changes in the other – which can only be a good thing!
I hope you’ve found these tips useful. If you’re thinking it is time to make some changes with your relationship with alcohol, I’d recommend you visit the Daybreak app. You can get the help and support you need from a community of people with similar goals to you, as well as help with getting more support if you need it.
Changing your relationship with alcohol doesn’t have to be drastic or involve huge changes to your lifestyle – it is more about figuring out what is going to work for you.
Next time on Tips and Hacks, we’ll be talking about how stress and anxiety impacts alcohol use.