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How Anxiety and Alcohol Affect Each Other

Alcohol can trigger or worsen anxiety. If you or someone you love is experiencing alcohol-related anxiety, there are ways to cope.

Society would have us believe that there’s no better way to unwind after a long day than by drinking a glass of wine, cold beer, or sipping your go-to liquor. But trying to relax with a drink or two may not give you the long-term anxiety relief you want.

In fact, drinking can change the chemistry of the brain in a way that actually makes anxiety worse. Knowing how alcohol affects anxiety may make it less tempting to have a drink to cope.

A primer on anxiety disorders

While everyone may experience anxiousness from time to time, a person who has an anxiety disorder often finds their anxiety doesn’t go away and may actually get worse with, or without provocation.

Anxiety disorder symptoms can disrupt a person’s life, making it difficult to work, participate in social events, and maintain relationships.

The exact symptoms of an anxiety disorder depend on which disorder a person has and can vary from one individual to the next. There are several anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). A person with GAD can have high amounts of fear or worry most days, for at least 6 months.

  • Panic disorder. People with panic disorder have panic attacks or brief periods of intense fear that can cause physical symptoms like shaking and palpitations along with a feeling of impending doom or being out of control.

  • Phobias. These involve a specific intense, or irrational fear. There are many including germaphobia and agoraphobia.

People with anxiety disorders may also have a substance use disorder. In fact, approximately 50% of people receiving treatment for alcohol use disorder also live with an anxiety disorder.

How does alcohol affect anxiety?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), it isn’t unusual for people with social anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders to use alcohol to try to calm anxiousness and ease related symptoms.

But using alcohol as a coping mechanism can be dangerous. If you or a loved one uses alcohol to cope with anxiety, especially during socializing, it may lead to being dependent on alcohol, especially in social settings.

Eventually, dependence needs more of a substance to get the same effects.

Alcohol use doesn’t lessen anxiety in the long term.

While dopamine increases immediately after drinking alcohol and temporarily makes you feel good, when the inebriation has faded, whatever symptoms that were being avoided rebound.

Alcohol can also make anxiety worse because it affects the levels of other mood-influencing chemicals like serotonin. Research notes that changes in chemical levels such as serotonin can cause anxiety disorders and depression.

Additionally, panic attacks can be triggered because of the effect alcohol has on gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) another brain chemical that normally has a relaxing effect.

While small amounts of alcohol may activate GABA and cause you to relax, heavier drinking can sap GABA. This depletion can cause more anxiety and panicky feelings.

How long does alcohol anxiety last?

Alcohol-induced anxiety is the uncomfortable feeling that can happen after drinking heavy amounts of alcohol. For those who have an alcohol use disorder, it’s a symptom of alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

The amount of time this alcohol anxiety lasts varies.

Some studies on mice show that alcohol-related anxiety can last anywhere from 4 to 14 hours. It may be present a full day after hangover symptoms start.

Alcohol anxiety may last during the whole withdrawal period. The withdrawal period normally peaks 72 hours after the blood alcohol level drops. The effects of withdrawal often ease 5 to 7 days after drinking ends.

But if drinking never ends, and the alcohol use becomes chronic, you might begin to see how anxiety and alcohol misuse can feed into each other.

Can you have alcohol anxiety without having an anxiety disorder?

It’s possible to have anxiety after drinking alcohol without having an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a common reaction to alcohol use.

It’s also possible for chronic alcohol use to contribute to existing anxiety or lead you to develop an anxiety disorder.

Symptoms of alcohol anxiety can accompany other withdrawal symptoms, including:

  • shaking hands

  • rapid heart rate

  • sweating

  • nausea and vomiting

  • hallucinations

How do I stop anxiety after drinking?

It can be really difficult to completely ease alcohol-related anxiety, but you can do some things to self-care, such as:

  • Remind yourself that anxiety episodes are just that — replete with a beginning and an end — they’re temporary.

  • Try some deep breathing exercises or grounding exercises if you’re having an anxiety attack.

  • Learn about anxiety and try to pinpoint what caused the situational anxiety at the moment, be it alcohol use or something else.

  • Remember that you’re not alone if you think you may have an anxiety disorder, substance use disorder, or both. You may want to consider seeking help in the form of treatment from a doctor, therapist, or support group.

  • If alcohol use is adding to your anxiety, you might consider ways to reduce your alcohol use.

To recap:

Alcohol use and anxiety are linked.

Research shows that alcohol use can make anxiety worse since it changes the chemicals in the brain.

Having a substance use disorder can also increase the chance of having an anxiety disorder.

If you believe you or someone you love has anxiety that gets worse with alcohol use, you or your loved one can take steps to treat their anxiety and cut down or stop drinking.

Call Us if you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, substance abuse, or addiction and need help. Our non-profit offers free Clinical Evaluations and Case Management services to individuals and families needing them.

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