In this series of Tips and Hacks, we’ll be covering how stress and anxiety impact alcohol use – we’ve touched on this before in our other series, but it deserves a bit more time and attention in my opinion. Here are a few key facts to be aware of if you’re interested in learning more about this complex relationship:
Anxiety and Stressful Life Experiences
There is a lot of evidence that links stressful life events (SLEs) in our early life with issues later in life, including anxiety, depression and, sometimes, substance use. SLEs don’t have to be life or death situations – they can be things like witnessing parental divorce, economic adversity or mental illness. The evidence indicates that experiencing two or more SLEs in early life significantly increases a person’s chances of developing an issue with their mood, such as anxiety or depression.
SLEs in adulthood can also create issues with our moods – if we have a number of stressful events with little opportunity for respite, we can find that it is much harder to keep positive. Perhaps we start to feel really anxious after a bad breakup that just keeps going on, or very down and helpless after some chronic stress at work. Our brains don’t deal with ongoing stress well, particularly the kind of stress that we feel we can’t do much about.
Emotions and stress levels
We know that SLEs affect the dopamine reward pathways in our brains – which is a major player in high-risk drinking. Over our lives, stress causes us to produce cortisol to survive and stay alert, but when those responses are activated again and again, it’s kind of like a button that gets pressed over and over – sometimes it just doesn’t work, or gets stuck in the ‘on’ position. People in this situation can feel flat and empty, and be particularly vulnerable to the feeling of reward or euphoria that can come with drinking alcohol.
People who have some problems with regulating their emotions as adults will often have had lots of stressful experiences as children, which have caused them to become ‘dysregulated’. The button in their brain that controls anxiety, mood, and even motivation, has been pressed too much and is now worn out. They might need to drink lots of coffee to get going, or they might need to drink a lot of alcohol to calm themselves down.
If there have been many disruptive, challenging or stressful events in your childhood, this may have contributed to you experiencing some issues with anxiety as an adult. If you were an anxious child who experienced a lot of things as stressful, that may also be impacting you now. If you’ve just come through a number of stressors and are finding that your emotions are all over the place, this may also be something to consider.
Alcohol & stress
In particular, if you are an anxious person who is under stress, you may be existing in a state of mild discomfort. It is not a comfortable feeling to be on edge or tense, and alcohol is something that significantly shifts that, really quickly. We become conditioned to believe that this is perhaps the only way to take away the discomfort or relieve the stress we are feeling – and so drinking becomes more and more of a coping strategy, particularly when we are having a difficult time in our lives and are stressed, burnt out or unhappy.
This may sound really bleak, but don’t worry! The good news is that being aware of this relationship is a big part of the solution. Daybreak members who have identified this link between stress, anxiety, and drinking, have found some of the following strategies really helpful:
1.Talk to a counsellor or coach about what kinds of things are generally stressful for you like relationship problems, criticism, failure or rejection. Understanding your triggers means that they are no longer triggers, but rather situations which can be handled with care and understanding.
2. Finding other ways to ‘self-soothe’. Things like relaxation and exercise are effective ways of lowering physiological arousal and increasing your production of dopamine. Importantly, they also give us a sense of control over our mood state, which is really important for our wellbeing.
3. Find ways to reduce stress in your life. If your stress button has been ‘worn out’ by life events, it may be necessary to find ways to deal with stress differently, whether that involves a change in your self-care, seeking support from friends and family to help lighten the load, or problem-solving ways to address sources of ongoing stress.
4. Make a list of trigger situations and a plan to deal with each of these. For example, if you know that you are likely to feel depleted and exhausted after work, make a plan to go for a walk with a friend, or schedule some other self-soothing activity that will be effective in lowering your arousal.
During these times that we are under stress in our adult lives, we need to be even more careful with things like alcohol and ensure that we are looking after ourselves and keeping stress to a minimum. This might involve getting some counselling to help deal with the source of strong emotions, or even to help to resolve current stresses in our relationships, work life or friendships.
I hope you’ve found these tips useful. If you’re thinking it is time to make some changes to your relationship with alcohol, I’d recommend you visit the Daybreak app at the link below. 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 we’ll be covering how alcohol effects our sleep.