woman wondering "does alcohol make anxiety worse?"
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While alcohol may temporarily relieve symptoms of anxiety, it can increase anxiety levels. Regular alcohol use can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to heightened anxiety, especially during withdrawal. It’s a cycle where alcohol use and anxiety can reinforce each other.

Alcohol ranks as the most used psychoactive substance across genders and age groups. It’s legally available without a prescription, and while moderation is advised, alcohol faces fewer restrictions in promotion compared to other drugs.

Even moderate alcohol consumption heightens the risk of heart disease, liver disease, and negative cognitive function, memory, and critical thinking. Psychologically, it is linked to heightened anxiety, mood disruptions, and irritability. While it provides temporary euphoria, its positive effects fade quickly, leaving long-lasting negative effects.

Alcohol is addictive. Every time we drink, we prime the brain to look forward to the positive effects of alcohol use the next time – even if the last time ended on a negative note, such as a blackout or symptoms of nausea.

Alcohol is also a depressant and disinhibitory substance. This means it can calm the nerves in the short term, slow things down, and eliminate indecision. This is a distinct problem for anxiety disorders because, at first, alcohol gives the illusion that it can help positively reduce symptoms of anxiety. For many people, a little bit of alcohol can seemingly cause feelings of confidence, in addition to pleasure and relaxation. But unfortunately, these feelings don’t last and carry heavy consequences.

The Link Between Alcohol and Anxiety

When alcohol hits the bloodstream, the most immediate effect occurs in the brain, causing drunkenness. Mimicking certain neurotransmitters, alcohol disrupts brain cell communications, altering behavior, judgment, and coordination. While it might initially create a sense of euphoria, it’s very short-lived.

Anecdotally, we know that a drink or two can be relaxing. However, research shows us that the consequences of long-term drinking rewire the brain in ways that can make anxiety symptoms worse. First, let’s understand what anxiety is.

Anxiety disorders are mental health conditions characterized by a disruptive and excessive level of stress or nervousness, including feelings of fear, irritation, and panic. It’s normal to be anxious occasionally and even incredibly anxious before a big event or as a result of something shocking. But anxiety disorders flare up at random, sometimes for no reason, and are often much more severe than normal nervousness.

The most common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (characterized by long-term feelings of dread and pressure for at least half a year), social anxiety disorder (characterized by irrational feelings and worries towards other people and how they perceive you), and panic disorder (characterized by frequent panic attacks, which are short-term episodes of anxiety that include physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and hyperventilation). Anxiety-adjacent conditions include obsessive-compulsive disorder and stress disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a nutshell, anxiety disorders can be generalized by a heightened or irrational stress response and feelings of fear. Alcohol use is common among people with anxiety disorders because, first, alcohol does help calm the nerves. However, alcohol use usually makes it harder for anxiety symptoms to be treated, and alcohol’s long-term effects on the pathways in your brain can make you more susceptible to existing feelings of anxiety and dread.

The feeling is most noticeable in the rebound after drinking. While getting drunk can feel good, the emotional comedown can bring you to a more severe state of depression and anxiety than how you felt leading up to the drinking. This is partly due to how your brain reacts to a flood of neurotransmitters while getting drunk. Paradoxically, alcohol can also trigger panic attacks and anxiety attacks with no warning. Heavy drinking is also more likely to trigger feelings of anxiety rather than continue to relax you.

Alcohol misuse often correlates with poor nutrition, poor sleep, and other markers of poor physical well-being, all of which negatively impact anxiety and make existing mental health problems worse.

Shared Risk Factors for Anxiety and Alcohol Use

Substance use disorders like alcoholism and mental health conditions like anxiety can amplify each other. On the other hand, shared genetic and environmental risk factors, stress, traumatic experiences, and poverty can contribute to both mental health disorders and substance use disorders. In some cases, alcohol abuse and anxiety are a chicken-and-egg situation. Because one amplifies the other, it can be hard to tell which came first – or which served as a cause for which. Ultimately, both feed into each other.

Individuals experiencing anxiety, PTSD, or depression may be more vulnerable to the risk of addiction and have a much harder time stopping due to the way substance use amplifies negative emotions and self-esteem.

Treatment Options for Anxiety and Alcohol Abuse

Treating alcohol use disorder and anxiety disorders requires holistic treatment for women. Treating one without the other is difficult because of how they intertwine. If you focus on addiction treatment without addressing a person’s existing anxiety problems, then they may be more likely to relapse if their anxiety gets worse. If you try to treat their anxiety without treating the addiction, then recurring substance use can negate the effects of therapy.

Specialized treatment plans, like residential programs or intensive outpatient care, tackle substance abuse and mental health issues in a safe environment, helping women seek total mental and physical well-being in a space designed for them.

Identifying modalities that work for you is also important. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating anxiety disorders and alcohol use. Some people respond better to group therapy, while others credit certain lifestyle changes. It’s important to find treatment methods that suit you.
Long-term support, such as extended aftercare programs, brings women in contact with a supportive community and helps them establish their support network. At The Ho Tai Way, we emphasize incorporating aftercare, peer connections, and a supportive environment into our treatment process.

Let us help you step into a world of addiction recovery.

Contact The Ho Tai Way to explore their residential programs and aftercare services, initiating your recovery journey today.