Stress and anxiety: how alcohol affects your mental health

Fatmata Kamara
Mental Health Nurse Global Case Manager
22 September 2021
Next review due September 2024

After a tough day, many people open a bottle of beer or wine to relax and de-stress. While it may make you feel better initially, drinking alcohol regularly can actually make stress and anxiety worse.

Here, I explain how alcohol affects your mental health, and share other healthier ways to relax at the end of a long and busy day.

An image of alcoholic drinks

Stress and alcohol

Having a drink is a quick but deceptive fix. Alcohol affects the chemicals in your brain – slowing down (depressing) how your brain and central nervous system functions. It affects the part of your brain that controls inhibition (the process of restraining your impulses or certain behaviours because of factors such as your morals or lack of confidence). This is why after a drink or two you may feel less anxious and more confident, or ‘lose your inhibitions’.

In the short term, you may feel more relaxed. But, in reality, having a drink is often used as a distraction from dealing with what’s causing you stress or anxiety.

How alcohol affects your brain

The chemical changes in your brain can mean more negative feelings start to take over, such as anxiety, depression, anger or aggression. This is because alcohol affects the neurotransmitters in your brain. These are chemicals that send messages from one nerve in your brain to another. Alcohol stops them from working correctly and has a negative impact on your mental health and wellbeing.

If you’re drinking regularly you could have a permanent hangover, without even realising it. Perhaps you haven’t made the connection between why you’re drinking, what you’re drinking and how it makes you feel.

It’s easy for drinking to become a habit – which can quickly become an addiction. If you think you’re addicted to alcohol, there are plenty of places you can turn to for help and support.

Healthier ways to relax

Take time to unwind and relax in healthier ways at the end of a stressful day.

  • Do some exercise. This could be a class, sports club or simply a brisk walk.
  • Practice yoga or stretching to unwind. Put on some calm music and move and stretch your body, gently and slowly. Breathe deeply while you do this.
  • Listen to some calming music.
  • Cook. Many people find chopping, slicing and cooking relaxing. Try a new recipe and make time to create your favourite meal.
  • Have a relaxing bath. Use essential oils, candles and bubbles to connect and stimulate all your senses.

Breaking the habit

If you’ve been having a drink most days as your way to relax, it can be hard to break that habit. So start by aiming to have just one small drink with your dinner in the evening. Try to resist the temptation to reach for the bottle as soon as you get home. This is a really effective way to cut back.

Social anxiety and alcohol

Social anxiety disorder or social phobia is when you feel afraid of social situations. You may worry about what people think of you or find it very uncomfortable to talk to others. You may even go out of your way to avoid these times.

Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, so you may say and do things more freely than when you’re sober. If you’re feeling nervous or anxious at a party, you might use alcohol to help you feel more confident and less afraid.

It may feel like this helps in the short term, as you may feel more relaxed. But overall, it’s not a good idea and is harmful to your health.

Alcohol alters your perceptions – you may miss cues or misinterpret things, making you feel paranoid and upset. That’s why people may argue with their partners, friends or even strangers when they’ve had too much to drink. It can also increase the risk of your social anxiety carrying on over time.

What are the long-term mental health effects of alcohol?

Alcohol affects your brain’s chemistry and increases the risk of feeling anxious or depressed. If you’ve been drinking more recently and have noticed you’ve been feeling low, giving up alcohol could help.

Experts have seen that people who were depressed and drinking, who then gave up alcohol, started to feel better within a few weeks. If you try this and feel better, then it’s likely it was the alcohol causing your low mood.

You may notice you feel brighter and you’re getting on with your life better. But if your low mood doesn’t improve and affects your quality of life, it’s important to contact your GP for help and support.

Signs that alcohol is harming your mental health include:

  • finding it hard to sleep after drinking
  • having a low mood
  • feeling tired and hung over regularly
  • feeling worried and anxious in places and with people that you wouldn’t normally have any worries about

What is ‘beer fear’ or ‘hangxiety’?

Aside from the well-known physical symptoms of a hangover, you may have noticed that you feel more anxious the day after drinking. Not only is alcohol a depressant, which can make you feel low, ‘the fear’ is a nagging worry that you did or said something you shouldn’t have. You may also feel angry or disappointed in yourself for drinking too much.

Tips to cut down alcohol

  • Stay within the low-risk guidelines – this means not drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week spread out over three days or more.
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Make sure you have a good meal before you drink.
  • Drink soft drinks between alcoholic drinks.
  • Have several drink-free days each week.
  • Switch to lower strength or alcohol-free drinks.
  • Keep a diary of your drinking and check in with it every few weeks to track how you’re doing.

If you need help

If you think you need to talk to someone about how much alcohol you’re drinking, help is available – make an appointment to see your GP for advice and support.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a free helpline – 0800 9177650 – and can help you find support groups and meetings near to where you live.

Fatmata Kamara
Fatmata Kamara (she/her)
Mental Health Nurse Global Case Manager

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