During the COVID-19 pandemic many of us have started drinking more alcohol than we normally would. This may be due to boredom or has just become a new habit. However, drinking alcohol can contribute to anxiety and panic attacks and can develop into a vicious cycle.
Many of us believe that having a drink will help us to feel more relaxed. However, if you suffer from anxiety, drinking alcohol can make things worse.
How does alcohol affect anxiety?
Alcohol acts as a sedative, so it can help people feel more at ease. It may make them feel more socially confident at a party or help them forget their worries. However, these benefits are short term. When we drink alcohol it disrupts the balance of chemicals and processes in the brain. The relaxed feeling you experience when you have your first drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol causes in your brain. The alcohol starts to depress the part of the brain that we associate with inhibition. But these effects wear off fast and the pleasant feelings fade. If you rely on alcohol to mask your anxiety problems, you may find you become reliant on it to relax, which may lead to alcohol addiction. A likely side-effect of this is that the more you drink the greater your tolerance for alcohol will be. Over time you may need to drink more alcohol to get the same feeling. In the long term this pattern of alcohol use may affect your mental health.
The way our bodies process alcohol can also have a direct effect on our mood. As your body processes the alcohol you’ve drunk, the sedative effects wear off. People can begin to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms similar to feelings people who are dependent on alcohol may have. These symptoms can be psychological such as feeling depressed or anxious. Many people feel like this the morning after drinking alcohol. This is because they are withdrawing from the effects of alcohol. This feeling often goes hand in hand with physical hangover symptoms such as a headache or upset stomach. For some people, these feelings of anxiety or agitation may be barely noticeable. But if anxiety is already an issue for you, experiencing withdrawal from alcohol can make your symptoms feel worse. If someone is prone to social phobia, they might find themselves worrying about what they said or did the night before. If someone suffers from generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), they may wake in the middle of night (as the alcohol wears off) and lie awake worrying and feeling stressed.
What is the vicious cycle of anxiety and alcohol?
If you suffer from anxiety, you might think that a couple of drinks will help you relax.
In fact, alcohol can make an anxious person feel worse. Here’s an example of a typical cycle:
You drink alcohol
You initially feel calm as the alcohol affects the brain
You feel anxiety as a symptom of alcohol withdrawal as your body processes the alcohol
You may want to drink again to try to relieve your anxiety
But this only starts the process from the beginning. As the initial calm feeling fades you can feel anxiety after stopping drinking alcohol build again as the effects wear off.
Remember the more alcohol you drink, the greater your tolerance will be. Over time you may need to drink more alcohol to feel the same effects. Over-time this may negatively affect your mental health, resulting in heightened levels of anxiety and depression after drinking.
If you think that you may be struggling with anxiety then cutting down on the amount of alcohol you drink should be something you might want to consider. There are a number of places to gain support in helping you to start making those steps. These include drinkaware.com and speaking to a trained professional such as a psychologist.