Reviewed by Aaron Horn, LMFT
ALCOHOL AND ANXIETY
It's a familiar scene in popular culture: It's been a long week, and you're feeling stressed out, so you reach for a drink. Maybe you're at a party, and it's a stressful social situation, so you consume alcohol to make yourself more laid back, candid, and capable of enjoying the evening.
According to this narrative, alcohol is supposed to take the edge off and ease some of your anxieties. Commercials, films, and even friends and loved ones might recommend alcohol for anxiety as a solution to your problem.
But increasingly, research is showing that alcohol might be precisely what is causing your anxiety.
Does Alcohol Help Anxiety?
In the short term, it's possible. In fact, for a little while, alcohol may have a calming effect. In a long time, or even as soon as the alcohol wears off, the withdrawal can worsen your anxiety and leave you with guilt, embarrassment, and stress worse than you were struggling with before. These feelings are sometimes called "anxiety" and are pretty standard.
Alcohol is a depressant and a sedative, so it may make you feel relaxed or even sleepy. While under the influence of alcohol, you may release your inhibitions, feel your mood improved, and enjoy yourself.
But, again, these are all effects in the short term. Once the alcohol wears off, you may be gripped with sudden anxiety or depression, coupled with a hangover's physical products, creating a wholly unpleasant experience.
Can Alcohol Cause Anxiety?
Yes. While you are under the effects of alcohol, your anxiety levels may temporarily decrease. But the day after drinking, or a few hours after drinking, when the alcohol wears off, the anxiety can be powerful and damaging.
This anxiety the day after drinking may take the form of ruminating on what you did the night before while your judgment is impaired. Now sober, your frontal cortex is again functioning at total capacity, and you become horrified by something you said or did. It is important to remember that this reaction is normal, and your alcohol-induced anxiety is probably making the situation appear worse than it indeed was.
Scientists are finding chemical reasons you may experience heightened anxiety the day after drinking.
Physical Reasons Why Alcohol Can Cause Anxiety
When you drink, your brain sees an influx of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), making you feel calm and relaxed. But your body also uses it as a crutch, and when the alcohol leaves your system, even if it is not much, your brain suffers from withdrawal, which can increase anxiety. For this reason, alcohol and stress are pretty related. Your regret from something that happened last night or something that worries you about the future could be significantly exacerbated by the chemical reactions in your brain, causing you to feel anxious.
You may also have very low blood sugar and physical pain from other hangover symptoms the morning after drinking. Those symptoms combine to worsen your anxiety and sometimes leave you feeling guilty, insecure, and flustered.
It is essential to mention that these symptoms do not only affect people who have an AUD or Alcohol Use Disorder (also known as alcoholism or alcohol dependence). Some people experience feelings of anxiety even after just one or two drinks. Of course, fear becomes significantly worse if you have an alcohol dependency or become intoxicated often.
A Vicious Cycle
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) has been linked to alcohol use, especially social drinking. People who worry excessively in social situations may drink because they believe it makes them funnier, calmer, or more relaxed.
But it's not just social anxiety. Any anxiety can increase the likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder.
Unfortunately, people already susceptible to anxiety and depression are also more likely to experience "anxiety" after drinking and feel it to a greater degree or for a more extended period. If you already suffer from an anxiety disorder, your anxiety after drinking can feel far more intense than your baseline anxiety levels.
If someone has learned to rely on alcohol as an anxiety treatment, their anxiety after drinking could lead them to seek out a drink again, thus falling into a dangerous cycle.
Signs Of An Alcohol Use Disorder
Again, anxiety after drinking can happen at all levels, but if you are worried about using alcohol to cope with your stress, keep an eye out for these tell-tale signs of an alcohol dependency.
- Struggling to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
- Trying to reduce the amount of alcohol you consume but failing to follow through.
- Spending much of your time drinking alcohol, recovering from alcohol use, or seeking out alcohol
- Craving alcohol or feeling a strong urge to drink
- Missing out on significant obligations at work or school due to alcohol use
- Drinking alcohol despite your knowledge that it causes problems in your interpersonal relationships or with other obligations
- Drinking excessively, even in circumstances where it's not safe, such as driving
- Developing a high alcohol tolerance
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms like sweating, shaking, or nausea when you do not drink
Even if you aren't experiencing these symptoms, don't wait until you are. If you feel that alcohol and anxiety are making your life worse, and pushing you into circumstances where you feel unhappy and guilty, consider reducing alcohol in your life or removing it altogether.
Signs Of An Anxiety Disorder
It is essential to recognize if you have symptoms of an anxiety disorder because it can make you far more susceptible to developing an alcohol dependency.
Some signs that you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder include the following:
- Frequently feeling nervous, restless, tense, or stressed out.
- Frequently feeling a sense of panic, as if things will suddenly go wrong, and you will lose control.
- A fast or increased heart rate
- Lack of productivity due to:
- Difficulties concentrating
- Feeling overwhelmed or incapable.
- Feeling weak or tired.
- Difficulty sleeping
- Ruminating or obsessing on one thing, especially a mistake, unpleasant emotion, or intrusive thoughts
- Difficulties controlling your emotions, especially worry.
- Chronic pain, such as headaches, stomach problems, or back pain
- Panic attacks
- A level of worry that is entirely disproportionate to the real problem
To gain more insight into whether you have an anxiety disorder, check out our diagnostic test.
HOW TO MANAGE ALCOHOL-INDUCED ANXIETY
- Recognize What's Happening
The anxiety comes from alcohol withdrawal and maybe not something you did or said.
Your anxiety after drinking results from chemical processes in your brain and is not necessarily a reasonable response to your situation or behavior.
The things you are anxious about are probably being blown out of proportion by the chemical imbalances after drinking. It's normal and happens to many people after a night of drinking.
Something small you can't seem to let go of will probably feel insignificant in a few hours when the alcohol has worn off.
- Wait It Out
Once you recognize that your feelings are alcohol-induced anxiety, you can wait for your brain chemistry to rebalance.
Get involved in distracting tasks like watching a movie, exercising, reading, journaling, or something else to get your mind off things. Maybe you will finish that task and notice you feel better.
- Get Some Sleep
If you can, take a nap. A lack of sleep can exacerbate anxiety, and sleep is often disrupted after a night of heavy drinking. Getting to bed early the next day, or even taking a little cat nap, can help you feel better and recover faster.
- Eat Well And Hydrate
You need to get your blood sugar and nutrients back up. Greasy foods might make you feel sluggish and worse. Try instead to replenish your body with a lot of water and a meal rich in fruits and vegetables.
These foods will give your body the energy it needs to recuperate.
- Don't Drink
If you are still dealing with alcohol withdrawal, drinking again will make your body more dependent on the crutch that alcohol can provide.
It is best to ride out the wave because you don't want to train your body to rely on alcohol whenever it experiences anxiety or withdrawal symptoms.
If you do not like how you feel the day after drinking or rely on alcohol to handle less anxiety in various situations, seriously consider reducing your alcohol consumption. The pressure after the occasional beer or glass of wine can be manageable, but sometimes-serious anxiety attacks after nights of heavy drinking can affect your quality of life.
Due to chemical reactions in your brain when you drink, alcohol can cause anxiety, especially after drinking.
Awareness of anxiety disorders is essential because they can make you more susceptible to alcohol-induced anxiety. They also make you more likely to develop an alcohol dependency. To determine if you are suffering from anxiety, take our quick online test.
Find social circumstances in which you feel like you can relax and be yourself without the help of alcohol. Drink only to enjoy a slight, occasional buzz rather than to get drunk. You may find the amount of anxiety in your life dramatically decreasing.