Two common reasons for drinking are stress and anxiety.
Maybe it’s drinking to relax after or during a stressful situation.
Perhaps the kids coming home from school.
After a hard day at work.
Or at/before a social event.
People can also feel stressed and anxious after drinking.
Did you know alcohol affects the nervous system and can increase anxiety?
Let’s look at how stress and anxiety can play out in our relationship with alcohol.
What is stress?
Stress is a mental and physical response to any situation that is perceived as stressful or challenging such as relationship conflict, financial issues, or more short-term situations like pressure at work, being sick, or many commitments.
Stress affects us both physically (e.g. tension in your neck and shoulders or other parts of your body, sleep issues) and mentally (e.g. unhelpful thoughts).
Stress is a natural physical reaction that helps you to respond quickly and effectively under pressure.
Our body does this by revving up our nervous system and hormones to prepare for action.
Adrenaline and cortisol are the two main hormones that begin to pump through our system, speeding up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and metabolism.
If the stress response goes on for too long (e.g. if you’re under the pump at work for months on end), this can take its toll on your mind and body.
Some people have a more sensitive stress response than others, much like a car alarm that goes off in the wind.
Stress is the body’s response to a situation which is challenging. A little bit of stress, for example a job interview or a deadline, helps us to ramp up our performance.
Anxiety can occur at the same time as stress (and is often made worse by stress), but is generally to do with fear or a threat response.
Anxiety involves ongoing worry and ‘out of proportion’ responses to situations and events.
The two often go hand in hand, but it’s helpful to be able to identify which ones you are experiencing and when.
Stress and anxiety put us in a more vulnerable position to developing issues with alcohol such as ‘Self-medicating’ with alcohol to calm down or relax.
Ongoing stress and anxiety reduces the brain chemical dopamine, leading us to feel flat and maybe seek out things to feel better (like alcohol, shopping, food, etc).
Drinking can trigger anxiety and actually make it worse over the longer-term.
Alcohol increases hormones like cortisol (linked to stress) after a few hours of stopping drinking. It is common to experience a racing heart and feelings of jitteriness or nervousness, and sometimes even panic attacks. On top of hangover symptoms like a headache and stomach upsets, these anxiety symptoms make feeling unwell even more stressful and difficult to deal with.
This kind of anxiety is commonly called ‘hang-xiety’, and can continue over the next few days after a drinking episode.
There is a common cycle that we can get into when drinking to relieve stress.
When the body releases cortisol after an episode of drinking, it’s common to want another drink to relax that feeling. Also, the body releases even higher amounts of cortisol each time. This resets what the body considers ‘normal’, to a higher baseline level of stress.
What are my current stressors?
Most of us have a few things that are causing us stress at any one time, so it’s useful to know what these are for you. These could be things like:
Reduce stress without alcohol
Check out our top four strategies below and give our activity sheet on ‘how best to manage your stress’ a go.
Strategies to relieve stress
Mindfulness is an evidence-based practice that can effectively reduce stress naturally and is is all about being in the present moment such as:
- Focusing on the here and now
- Noticing what is going on with non judgment
- Practicing a meditation practice.
There is growing scientific evidence that regular mindfulness practice (just 15 minutes a day) can result in improvements to general health and well-being, as well as brain function such as:
- Brain growth in areas linked to learning and memory (Hippocampus brain region)
- Regulating emotional reactions
- Perspective-taking (being able to better understand other people’s points-of-view)
- Reduced grey-matter density of the Amygdala (the ‘fight or flight’ brain region linked to anxiety and stress) – which means reduced stress levels!
How do you do it?
There are a range of mindfulness exercises to choose from. Like anything, it takes a bit of practice and generally gets easier over time.
Stress can make us feel stuck. Our regular coping mechanisms don’t work as well.
Taking a problem solving approach can help you try to break down the issue into manageable parts.
There are many techniques you could use. Try out one of these in our activity sheet on ‘how best to manage your stress’.
We tend to manage stress better when we have people around us to talk to about our feelings, concerns and potential solutions.
It is also comforting to have someone listen and empathise.
Who do you have around you for support? Give the social support exercise a go in our activity sheet on ‘how best to manage your stress’
Self care for stress management is more than just taking a bubble bath, or taking time out. Self care is any action you can take that meets your needs right now. This could involve relaxation, stimulation, companionship, or rest and personal time.
For some people, this might be taking an afternoon off to recharge.
For others this might mean scheduling a catch-up with friends.
- Stress and anxiety both leave you more vulnerable to want to reach for a drink
- Drinking does not help with stress in the long-term and can make anxiety symptoms worse
- There are many great ways to reduce stress including mindfulness, social support, problem solving and self care.
Want to learn more?
You can find many stress reduction apps in the app stores:
- Worry Time
- Stop, Breathe & Think
Books and Articles
There are lots of great books and articles offering help. We have selected a few to get you started:
- Why zebras don’t get ulcers – Book by Robert Sapolsky
- Rising Strong – Book by Brene Brown
- Who moved my cheese? – Book by Spencer Johnson
If reading this brings up tough stuff for you, please talk to a trusted family member, friend, GP or one of the other services listed on our Get Help page. For additional support, we encourage you to follow the recommendations provided to you in your Personal Snapshot Report.