Alcohol is a depressant
Regularly drinking more than the recommended guidelines can make anxiety worse. That’s because alcohol is a depressant. It slows down the brain and processes in the central nervous system. Alcohol can interfere with what our brains need to do for good mental health, so in the long-term, it can contribute to negative feelings and make anxiety harder to deal with.
Relying on alcohol when you’re anxious could make you reliant on it to relax
Alcohol can help some people feel more at ease in certain situations, but these feelings are short-lived. The relaxed feeling you experience when you drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol causes in your brain, as the alcohol starts to suppress activity in part of the brain that is associated with inhibition. But these effects wear off fast. If you rely on alcohol to mask anxiety, you may find you become reliant on it to relax. A likely side effect is that the more you drink, the greater your tolerance for alcohol will be. This means that over time you would need to drink more alcohol to get the same feeling, and in the medium to longer term this pattern of drinking often leads to alcohol dependence.
‘Hangxiety’ can be as common as a headache or an upset stomach if you have a hangover.
More commonly known hangover symptoms include headaches and upset stomachs, but many people have feelings of anxiety too – this is sometimes known colloquially as ‘hangxiety’. The morning after drinking, you may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms which can be psychological, such as feeling depressed or anxious. For some people, these feelings of heightened anxiety or agitation may be barely noticeable. But if anxiety is already an issue for you, the morning after can make your anxiety worse.
Drinking can disturb your sleep
Several sleepless nights have an impact on our day-to-day mental health, for example, on our mood, concentration and decision-making. And while alcohol might help some people nod off, even a couple of drinks can affect the quality of our sleep. If you're regularly drinking more than the low risk drinking guidelines, you may find you wake up the next day feeling like you haven't had much rest at all. Regularly drinking alcohol can disrupt sleep. For example, a heavy drinking session of more than six units in an evening, can make us spend more time in deep sleep and less time than usual in the important Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, which is an important restorative stage of sleep our bodies need. This can leave us feeling tired the next day - no matter how long we stay in bed.
It’s not uncommon to drink to cope with situations
If you ever have a drink because you think it helps when you’re feeling anxious, depressed, particularly stressed or nervous, you’re not alone. According to our research, about four in ten (39%) UK drinkers say they have. In fact almost half (48%) of UK drinkers say they have ever drank to cheer themselves up when they’re in a bad mood and more than one in three (36%) have had a drink to try to forget about their problems.* But if you think you may be struggling with anxiety, drinking alcohol is not a short or long-term solution and you should consider cutting back on the amount of alcohol you drink.
How to prevent alcohol causing or worsening anxiety?
- If you’re worried about how alcohol may be affecting or causing your anxiety, try these steps:
- Try not to associate drinking alcohol with relaxing in order to avoid drinking when you feel anxious
- Take a look at mental health charity, Mind, for lots of helpful advice and information about managing anxiety
- Track how much you’re drinking to help spot patterns and avoid triggers – the Drinkaware app can help.
- If you’re drinking more than the UK Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines (no more than 14 units a week for both men and women), try to cut down. Here are some useful tips and advice on how to take a break from alcohol. If you’re worried you may be dependent on alcohol contact to your GP surgery or your local alcohol support service, many of which accept self-referrals.
- For more advice about coping with your anxiety and information about local services that can support you check the NHS website, Every Mind Matters
* Research from the Drinkaware Monitor 2018