How stress and anxiety impact alcohol use

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.

Emotional regulation

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.

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  • Thank you for those kind words. You’ve triggered a positive response for me!

    By Josh
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    February 25, 2021
  • Hello, I am relatively early sobriety and I have found that self soothing through gentle exercise gives me a happy state, where if I’m feeling low this will help raise my well being. My E-bike allows me to ground myself physically but more psychologically. I’ve never been into exercise at all but have found a freedom in it. Greer

    By Greer Y
    |
    February 25, 2021
  • It’s not that easy during lockdown. As a Victorian, we don’t know when Dan will call a lockdown. My psychologist told me three weeks ago I can’t get complacent about lockdowns. Sure enough Dan called it a day later.

    I want to stop – I have a plan – but I need stability – I feel stupid and weak .

    I once was 12 months sober – so happy I celebrated with a glass of wine – quickly turned into 2 bottles.

    I know I can’t pick up one drink, I know I’m an alcoholic, I know my triggers, I know what I need to do.

    Why am I so scared of doing it ?

    By Sheryl Cross
    |
    February 25, 2021
    • 12 Months sober is amazing. Well done. If you can make it that far you have plenty of will power

      By Jason
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      February 25, 2021
    • Feel for you. We know what we should do. I am in the same situation but luckily in WA

      By Stephen D
      |
      February 25, 2021
      • I know exactly where you are coming from. I’m in WA too.

        By Irene
        |
        March 2, 2021
    • Hi Sheryl, You are certainly not stupid and weak. You posted here, you know you have an issue and you have dealt with it amazingly in the past. That makes you smart and strong. Victoria has been an especially hard place to be during COVID but while we are not at the end, you can see it from here. Almost! As you say, you know what you need to do but it is scary. Alcohol is your “friend” , so hard to ditch, but really, and you know this, not a very good friend when the going gets hard. Wishing you all the best!

      By Louise Oldfield
      |
      February 25, 2021
    • You are so self aware and that is core to change. Many of us won’t admit, even to ourselves, that we have a toxic relationship with alcohol. Thanks for sharing – insightful. You did it before you can do it again.

      By Phyll
      |
      February 25, 2021
    • Sheryl, that is a really brave post. Like you I feel stupid and weak.I wish i could do 12 months. 5 weeks is the most I’ve achieved in the last 3 years of recognising I’ve issues. And every day in those 5 weeks was a struggle. And worth the struggle though I keep relapsing and feeling stupid and weak. As an aside I’ve tried prescribed medicines which worked to begin with. It’s a mindset with me. When I’m in control it feels great, the triggers you mention are never far away though. I await the day we cure cancer and addiction. Otherwise it’s down to me and any support team to help us. Big shout out to help individuals/teams – they encourage us, make us believe our addictions aren’t in control and so much more. Ultimately though it’s us (you/me/fellow readers) versus the hormones/drug addiction etc that control us. Unfortunately I can identify with you too well and I wish I could help the scariness. When you find a mentor can you share them with me. We have the same problems.

      By G
      |
      February 25, 2021
      • Share with me too please!. I have been fighting this demon far too long but unfortunately the demon keeps winning hands down.
        Addictions are terrible things. I did give up smoking after 20 years and I have never gambled or gone down the drug pathway. However the alcohol demon has me screwed!!

        By Irene
        |
        March 2, 2021
  • Great article short and to the point – makes total sense! Yep

    By Dave
    |
    February 25, 2021
  • This is a brilliant and illuminating piece. I had a very anxiety ridden childhood and in a variety of ways this has continued my whole life. Been drinking for 45 years and just can’t stop. Am high functioning alcoholic and no one knows my struggles.

    By savannah
    |
    February 25, 2021
    • Hi there, you and me both, I’ve been struggling for 50 years. My family are aware but not my work colleagues. I sometimes think what is the point, its getting harder and harder to cope.

      By Irene
      |
      March 2, 2021
  • What does the daybreak app cost?

    By Phyll
    |
    February 25, 2021
  • So hard to give up something enjoyable. I want to and need to yet lockdown keeps me doing it.
    Iwas over 4 years sober then bang..off I went again.. well I do need to get through this

    By Shirley Oxburgh
    |
    February 25, 2021
  • Still struggling happy that u r overcoming the alcoholism i hope to do the same. Blessings

    By Yolanda Benitez
    |
    February 27, 2021
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