Stress and anxiety: how alcohol affects your mental health

Fatmata Kamara
Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK
19 September 2018

A tough day sees many people opening a bottle of wine when they get home as a way to relax and de-stress. While it may make you feel better initially, the truth is that drinking alcohol regularly can actually make stress worse, and harder to deal with in the long run. It can also increase feelings of depression and anxiety.

Here we explain why alcohol affects your mental health and what you can do to relax in healthier ways.

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 can affect the part of your brain that controls inhibition – which is why, after a drink or two, you may feel less anxious and more confident. In the short term you may also feel more relaxed. But in reality having a drink is more of a distraction from dealing with what’s really going on, and stopping you from confronting stress head on.

The chemical changes in your brain can mean more negative feelings start to take over such as anxiety, depression, and 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 might not realise it but you could have a permanent hangover. You might be feeling generally unwell and perhaps haven’t made the connection between what you’re drinking, and how it affects how you’re feeling. This causes more stress because you’ll probably find it hard to concentrate at work and to stay motivated.

Healthier ways to relax

Other, healthier ways of relaxing after a stressful day include doing some exercise, some stretching, listening to some calming music, having a hot bath, or talking to a friend or loved one about your day. You could also take up a new hobby or activity as a way of unwinding too.

But if you’ve been having a drink most days as your way to relax, it can be hard to change that habit. So to start with, aim to have just one small drink with your dinner later on in the evening as a way to break the cycle of reaching for the bottle as soon as you get in the house. That way you won’t drink too much.

Social anxiety and alcohol

Social anxiety disorder or social phobia is when you feel afraid of social situations. You may worry about being embarrassed, or about others thinking negatively about you. You may find it very uncomfortable to be in social situations and worry about them before they happen. You might even go out of your way to avoid situations or events you know you’ll find very stressful.

It’s unclear exactly how common social anxiety disorder is, but it does appear to be one of the most common anxiety-related problems.

Is alcohol helpful or harmful if you have social anxiety?

Alcohol lowers your inhibitions so you may say and do things more freely than when you’re sober. This is an attractive prospect for someone feeling nervous or anxious at a party, or on a night out. You might also 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 not take in bits of information and misinterpret things, making you feel paranoid and upset. That’s why people may get into fights with their partners, friends or strangers when they’ve had too much to drink. Furthermore, it can 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 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, then 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 that was 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 really important to see your GP for some 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
  • 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 – such as a headache and feeling sick – have you ever noticed a feeling of unease and anxiety creeping in the day after drinking? Not only is alcohol a depressant which can make you feel low, ‘the fear’ is the nagging worry that you may have done something you shouldn’t have, or been out of line.

Drinking too much impairs your judgement, and it affects your memory, meaning you might not be able to remember exactly what happened the night before. Or it may be that you do remember being aggressive or acting in a way that you’re embarrassed about and feel anxious about the consequences. The only way to avoid feeling anxious in this way is to not drink too much.

Tips on cutting down

  • Stay within the low risk guidelines – this means not drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week and to spread this out over three days or more.
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Make sure you have a meal before you go out drinking.
  • Drink soft drinks every other round to space out the alcoholic drinks.
  • Have a night out without the booze and have some alcohol-free days.
  • Keep a diary of your drinking and check in with it every few weeks to track how you’re doing.
  • Be straight up with your friends and talk through any problems or disagreements when you’re sober, so they don’t slip out in the wrong way when you’ve had a few too many.

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.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Fatmata Kamara
Fatmata Kamara
Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK

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