The Surprising Relationship Between Alcohol And Anxiety

Reviewed by Aaron Horn, LMFT

Published 12/09/2020

ALCOHOL AND ANXIETY

It’s a common scene in popular culture: It’s been a long week, 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 in hopes of making yourself more laid back, candid, and capable of enjoying the evening.

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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 exactly 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 the long term, or even as soon as the alcohol wears off, the withdrawal can worsen your anxiety and leave you with feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and stress that are worse than what you were struggling with before. These feelings are sometimes referred to as “hangxiety,” and they are quite common.

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 find yourself gripped with sudden anxiety or depression, which couple with the physical effects of a hangover to create a wholly unpleasant experience.

Can Alcohol Cause Anxiety?

Yes. While you are under the effects of alcohol, you may find your anxiety levels temporarily decreased. 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 was impaired. Now sober, your frontal cortex is again functioning at full 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 truly was.

But the relationship between anxiety and alcohol goes far deeper than simply regretting a text you sent or a political opinion you shared while drinking. In fact, scientists are finding chemical reasons why 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) which makes you feel calm and relaxed. But your body also uses it as a crutch, and when the alcohol leaves your system, even if it was not much, your brain suffers from withdrawal and this can lead to an increase in anxious feelings. For this reason, alcohol and anxiety are quite related. Your regret from something that happened last night, or something that worries you about the future could be greatly exacerbated by the chemical reactions in your brain causing you to feel anxious.

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The morning after drinking, you may also have very low blood sugar and physical pain from other hangover symptoms. Those symptoms combine to worsen your anxiety and sometimes leave you feeling guilty, insecure, and flustered.

It is important 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, hangxiety 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 with social drinking. People who worry excessively in social situations may drink because they believe it makes them funnier, cooler, or more relaxed.

But it’s not just social anxiety. Any type of anxiety can lead to an increased chance of developing an alcohol use disorder.

Unfortunately, people who are already susceptible to anxiety and depression are also more likely to experience “hangxiety” after drinking, and more likely to feel it to a greater degree or for a longer period of time. If you already suffer from an anxiety disorder, the anxiety you feel after drinking can feel far more intense than your normal, baseline anxiety levels.

If someone has learned to rely on alcohol as an anxiety treatment, the anxiety they feel after drinking could lead them to again seek out a drink, 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 that you are using alcohol to cope with your anxiety, then keep an eye out for these tell-tale signs of an alcohol dependency.

  • Struggling to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Trying to cut down on 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 major 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 withdraw 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, then consider cutting down the amount of alcohol in your life or cutting it out altogether.

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Signs Of An Anxiety Disorder

It is important 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:

  • Frequently feeling nervous, restless, tense, or stressed out.
  • Frequently feeling a sense of panic, as if things will suddenly go horribly wrong, and you will lose control.
  • A fast or increased heartrate
  • Hyperventilating
  • 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 completely disproportionate to the real problem

If you want to gain more insight into whether you may have an anxiety disorder, check out our diagnostic test.

HOW TO MANAGE ALCOHOL-INDUCED ANXIETY

  1. Recognize What’s Happening

The anxiety is coming from alcohol withdraw, and maybe not something you actually did or said.

Your anxiety after drinking is a result of chemical processes in your brain, and not necessarily a reasonable response to your situation or your behavior.

The things that you are anxious about are probably being blown out of proportion by the chemical imbalances that happen after drinking. It’s normal and it happens to many people after a night of drinking.

Something small that you just can’t seem to let go of will probably feel very insignificant in a few hours when the alcohol has worn off.

  1. Wait It Out

Once you recognize that your feelings are alcohol induced anxiety, you can wait for your brain chemistry to balance itself out again.

Get involved in a distracting task, like watching a movie, exercising, reading, journaling, or something else to get your mind off things. Maybe you will finish that task and notice that you feel a lot better.

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  1. Get Some Sleep

If you can, take a nap. Anxiety can be exacerbated by lack of sleep, 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.

  1. Eat Well And Hydrate

You need to get your blood sugar and nutrients back up. Greasy foods might just make you feel lethargic 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.

  1. Don’t Drink

If you are still dealing with alcohol withdraw, drinking again will simply 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 any time it experiences anxiety or withdrawal symptoms.

If you notice that you do not like the way you feel the day after drinking, or rely on alcohol to feel less anxious in various situations, seriously consider cutting down your alcohol consumption. The anxiety 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.

CONCLUSION

Due to chemical reactions that happen in your brain when you drink, alcohol can cause anxiety, especially after drinking.

It’s important to be aware of anxiety disorders, especially because they can make you more susceptible to alcohol-induced anxiety. They also make you more likely to develop an alcohol dependency. To find out if you may be 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.