Anxiety, I Know It Well!
Is it because of my drinking?
Are They Related?
You may have started drinking to cope with stress and anxiety and now find that you are dependent on alcohol and cannot do without it. Now, if you don't drink, your anxiety returns with a vengeance, so you pour another glass.
When you drink heavily for an extended period of time, your body and brain adapt to alcohol; when you stop drinking, neurons start to fire and cause a range of dreadful symptoms, including anxiety.
That awful feeling of anxiety after quitting drinking is the most common reason that people relapse and go back to alcohol use.
For years, drinking has numbed your feelings, and now your brain has lost the ability to cope with anxiety without alcohol. Drinking eases your anxiety without treating the underlying cause. It's like taking strong painkillers to dull the ache of a broken arm; the pain will go away, but the arm is still broken.
A feeling of anxiety after drinking is common even for people who are not dependent on alcohol and is a short-term day-after withdrawal symptom. But if you've been drinking heavily and regularly over a period, the long-term anxiety associated with quitting drinking is much more than just getting over the withdrawal stage.
That's why quitting drinking isn't as easy as just stopping; your brain needs to be retrained to cope with anxiety without using alcohol..
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is something we all have some experience with. It can range from minor irritation to a full-on panic attack, and when anxiety occurs chronically, it can seriously impact our day-to-day lives.
As adults, we become conditioned to think of alcohol as a way to deal with anxiety—how many times have we said: “I need a drink” after a stressful day or event? However, dependence on alcohol as a way to numb ourselves to anxiety is problematic, because alcohol can exacerbate the anxiety we’re already feeling. If you’ve ever drank too much because you were anxious, only to wake up the next day with a hangover feeling even more stressed out than you did the night before, you’ll know what we mean.
The good news is that it’s possible to break the cycle of drinking to deal with anxiety. Here is some background on the relationship between anxiety and alcohol, and how you can learn healthier ways to cope.
Understanding the Connection Between Alcohol and Anxiety
Anxiety is an emotion that triggers our stress response and releases a wave of stress hormones into our bodies that often results in heavy breathing, increased heart rate, and sweating. Anxiety is a normal reaction to a stressful situation, but when you feel nervous and on-edge more often than not, it can indicate an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders come in many different forms: generalized anxiety disorder, frequent panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and specific phobias. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness among Americans—it’s estimated that about 40 million adults struggle with anxiety in the U.S. alone.
Anxiety disorders can be caused by several factors, including lifestyle, environment, and chemical imbalances. Anxiety can run in families, which means some people may be genetically predisposed to developing an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, but it also can depend on a person’s background, upbringing, and past experiences. Often, anxiety disorders occur with other issues, like depression and trauma.
It’s probably not surprising to learn that your whole body is affected by anxiety—your nervous, immune, respiratory, digestive, and cardiovascular systems are taxed when experiencing anxiety. What we may not realize is how interconnected our anxiety and our drinking are, and the impact it has on our bodies and wellbeing.
While drinking may provide immediate relief for anxiety, the results are short-term. The comedown from the chemical alterations alcohol causes in our brains increases the level of anxiety we experience, creating a vicious cycle of drinking, panic, and self-medication.
There are a few reasons why alcohol makes anxiety worse:
Alcohol decreases your serotonin levels. While alcohol can temporarily boost your serotonin levels and make you feel good while you drink, over the longer term, it decreases the level of serotonin in your brain, making you more susceptible to depression.
Hangovers can trigger panic attacks. The physical responses to being hungover —dehydration, nausea, rapid heartbeat—are so similar to anxiety, that these symptoms alone can trigger anxiety attacks.
Drinking impacts your sleep. Alcohol impacts the quality of your sleep, which also primes your body to be more anxious. We tend to be much more reactive and stressed-out after we’ve had a bad night of sleep.
How Changing Your Relationship with Alcohol Can Help Reduce Your Anxiety
Self-medicating with alcohol to relieve anxiety trains your brain to be dependent on a substance. As time goes on, it takes larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the same effect of calm, and as our bodies experience withdrawal, the anxiety gets worse. That being said, we understand what it’s like to be in this position—to feel intense anxiety and have alcohol as the only available solution.
Removing your coping mechanism may seem counterintuitive, but it opens the door to many other healthier ways of dealing with anxiety, as well as decreasing the overall anxiety you feel.
Here are some of the things you can gain when you change your relationship to alcohol:
A way to retrain your brain. By changing our behavior, we can develop new neural pathways in our brains that support our recovery. This means the next time we feel the beginnings of a panic spiral we can calm ourselves down without having to drink—we can get that same feeling of relief from a healthier source.
Better coping mechanisms. Many of us drank to deal with anxiety because we didn’t have any other method for dealing with intense feelings. When we become willing to learn new coping strategies we remove ourselves from the cycle of alcohol dependence. What works best is different for everyone, but studies (and our own experience) have shown that a combination of therapy, a positive support system, movement, and mindfulness go a long way to improving anxiety and strengthening recovery.
An opportunity to address the root causes of anxiety. When we explore the reasons why we’re anxious—whether they’re emotional, biological, or environmental—we learn more about ourselves. We can learn how to make changes to lessen the anxiety in our lives, and ultimately improve our overall health and wellbeing.
Exploring Things You Can Do Right Now to Manage Anxiety
We know the idea of quitting drinking can feel overwhelming and anxiety-producing in and of itself. That’s why we’re not asking you to make any big changes today. Instead, we’re offering a few suggestions for manageable, easy things you can do right now to alleviate some of the stress you may be feeling.
Try these when you're feeling anxious or stressed:
Take a time-out. Practice yoga, listen to music, meditate, get a massage, or learn relaxation techniques. Stepping back from the problem helps clear your head.
Eat well-balanced meals. Do not skip any meals. Do keep healthful, energy-boosting snacks on hand.
Limit alcohol and caffeine, which can aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks.
Get enough sleep. When stressed, your body needs additional sleep and rest.
Exercise daily to help you feel good and maintain your health. Check out the fitness tips below.
Take deep breaths. Inhale and exhale slowly.
Count to 10 slowly. Repeat, and count to 20 if necessary.
Do your best. Instead of aiming for perfection, which isn't possible, be proud of however close you get.
Accept that you cannot control everything. Put your stress in perspective: Is it really as bad as you think?
Welcome humor. A good laugh goes a long way.
Maintain a positive attitude. Make an effort to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
Get involved. Volunteer or find another way to be active in your community, which creates a support network and gives you a break from everyday stress.
Learn what triggers your anxiety. Is it work, family, school, or something else you can identify? Write in a journal when you’re feeling stressed or anxious, and look for a pattern.
Talk to someone. Tell friends and family you’re feeling overwhelmed, and let them know how they can help you. Talk to a physician or therapist for professional help.