Alcohol and Anxiety

Alcohol and Anxiety: Is There a Relationship?

It is true that low doses of alcohol can serve as a means to “calm the nerves”, and it’s not uncommon for people to use alcohol as a way to reduce their own levels of stress. This is particularly true for those who suffer from anxiety disorders.  In these cases, alcohol is used for the purpose of self-medicating the symptoms of anxiety. What many people fail to recognize, however, is that alcohol can also be stimulating.  More importantly, large doses of alcohol can actually worsen the symptoms of anxiety over time.

The anxiety symptoms induced by alcohol include increased levels of fear, stress, heightened stimulation, phobias and panic attacks. Alcohol induced anxiety disorders have their own particular diagnosis. The mental health community views this disorder by diagnosing patterns of drinking that take into account the duration and intensity of alcohol consumption. If anxiety symptoms lessen after a decrease in alcohol consumption or alcohol cessation it is considered to be an alcohol induced anxiety disorder.

Monitoring the symptoms for a specific time period after the cessation of alcohol is very useful in determining if the use of alcohol is producing anxiety symptoms. If there is an improvement in one’s level of anxiety after they quit drinking, this may suggest that there is a clinical relationship between alcohol and the symptoms of anxiety. In many cases, the remission of symptoms can take up to three or four weeks.

It is a fact that alcohol can indeed decrease one’s level of anxiety. However, this is often short lived. Alcohol is a relatively quick way to inhibit the nervous system thus it produces feelings of relaxation. For a short duration of time, alcohol helps increase the neurotransmitter and chemical inhibitory of Gamma-aminobutyric acid – also known as GABA. Essentially, this results in halting any feelings of anxiety. Though these effects are positive in the short term, they do have negative consequence over the long term.

It may appear that alcohol is actually helping someone to cope with their own levels of stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, over time, the use of alcohol can infringe on someone’s normal coping mechanisms. Their ability to cope from day to day gradually begins to decrease as time passes. Generally, long-term alcohol consumption decreases the brain's anxiolytic function thus making one less able to work with long term anxiety. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal experienced post-drinking could also increase the levels of anxiety beyond what was previously experienced. Though social phobia and anxiety disorders can precede the heavy use of alcohol, it is quite possible for someone to develop anxiety disorders as a result of heavy drinking.

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