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. In this article, we’ll give you some background on the relationship between anxiety and alcohol, and how you can learn healthier ways to cope.
In the following three sections, we’ll cover:
- Understanding the connection between alcohol and anxiety
- How changing your relationship with alcohol can help your anxiety
- Things you can do right now to manage your anxiety
Understanding the Connection Between Alcohol and Anxiety
What is 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 an anxiety disorder 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.
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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.
“The only path to true liberation around anxiety, or any emotion, is inside. There is no out there that can magically fix the in here. If you’re chasing that one-time freedom, please let me be the one to ask you: What if you quit drinking?”– Kelly McCormick, Tempest Accountability Coach
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.
Things you can do right now to manage your anxiety:
- Sign up to access Kelly McCormick’s free How Not To Panic video lesson. Aside from lending us her expertise in handling anxiety, Kelly is an Accountability Coach here at Tempest, where she helps our members identify and reach their goals in recovery. You can read more about Kelly’s story in her post, Drinking Was the Perfect Remedy for my Anxiety—Until it Wasn’t. You can sign up by scrolling up to the teal banner and adding your first name, last name, and email.
- Check out our resources on The Temper. Our online publication is full of helpful guides and essays for and by people in recovery. A few of our favorite posts about dealing with anxiety include 5 Active Ways to Reduce Stress , 7 Tips to Handle COVID-19 Anxiety Without Using, Mental Health: How and Where to Find Affordable Resources, and Incorporating Yoga Into Your Recovery.
- Build an anxiety ‘toolkit’. Sometimes it is helpful to have a set of tools, practices, or tricks in our back pocket to help manage our anxiety immediately while we consider more sustainable approaches. Many of us here at Tempest have a sobriety ‘toolbox’ we use to aid our recovery that may include our favorite meditations, a journal, essential oils, friends we can call, soothing music, and a comforting non-alcoholic beverage like herbal tea. Take a few moments to list some things you’d like to put in your own anxiety toolkit, you can get some inspiration here.
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Ultimately, the best way for you to deal with anxiety is your own choice. If you’re interested in changing your relationship with alcohol, we’re here to help.