Alcohol And AnxietyLast updated: February 8, 2019
Alcohol and anxiety share a “chicken and the egg” relationship. It’s unclear if people with a mild anxiety disorder exacerbate the problem with drinking or the drinking leads to severe anxiety disorders. What we do know is the two are linked with comparable numbers of people suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder; that’s 6.2% or 15.1 million American adults suffering from AUD in 2015 and 7.1% of American adults suffering from SAD in 2017.
To better understand the relationship between these two disorders, here’s a breakdown of anxiety and alcohol’s impact on it.
What Is Anxiety?
Almost everyone has felt anxious or an intense feeling of fear in their life. Anxiety is usually brought on by a stressful or uncomfortable situation. However, someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder experiences this sensation for a much longer period, going so far as to suffer for days, weeks, or even months on end. This can cause insomnia, fatigue, irritability, and panic attacks.
What Is A Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)?
A social anxiety disorder is a more specific form of anxiety disorder that’s triggered by social situations. Some notable symptoms include:
- Excessive worrying about future or upcoming events resulting in restlessness
- Negative thinking while in the company of others
- Rapid thoughts (often negative) about others
- Fear or borderline paranoia regarding the judgement of others
How Does Alcohol Affect Anxiety?
Typically, people who are suffering from an anxiety disorder – and SAD in particular – tend to self-medicate knowing that alcohol will assuage some of the initial symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety has a tendency to make a person feel on-edge and tense up as a result. However, because alcohol is a depressant and lowers inhibitions and impairs judgement, most people report that they can relax, talk freely, and not think about the consequences of their actions while under the influence.
Many alcoholics in recovery concede that alcohol helped them to numb their feelings. This is why, when the substance leaves their body following their social event, many people experience worse anxiety than before – especially when you add dehydration, altered brain chemistry (and serotonin levels), and poor sleep to the mix. This can cause alcohol-induced anxiety and in many cases (at least 20%) leads people to continue drinking in an effort stave off further anxiety. Of course, because of the addictive nature of alcohol, many people start to build a tolerance or become dependent on the substance. This is what leads many people to relapse.
Relapsing After Getting Sober
This is one of the many reasons alcohol addiction and social anxiety are not explicitly given a “cause and effect” relationship. Although they’re frequently linked together, they often need to be treated separately. This is also why many rehabilitation centers focus the first part of your stay on detoxing and treating withdrawal, but the ongoing help is through therapy and meetings to determine the root causes of the addiction.
Therapy and meetings continue to be a big part of recovery. All too often, someone will show great promise and complete a 30-day rehab program with dedication and compliance. Then, on their first day outside the facility, they relapse. This can happen because if the anxiety is not addressed in tandem with the addiction, then the anxiety may feel overpowering to a recently clean addict and they’ll relapse as a result. Olivier Ameisen once made the observation that rehab is like ‘respite’ rather than rehabilitation.
How Does Alcohol Withdrawal Affect Anxiety
Unfortunately, alcohol withdrawal exacerbates anxiety, especially in the first 24 hours sober from alcohol. Part of the reason this period is so painful is because the brain has been forced to work twice as hard to maintain brain and body function. When alcohol is removed from your system, the brain is working twice as hard, but does not have the substance to call upon to produce or suppress chemicals in the brain. As a result there’s a simultaneous flood and deprivation of chemicals in the brain.
Imagine every time your leg or foot has fallen asleep and you get up and start walking. On the one hand, the leg is numb so it’s hard to coordinate, and on the other, it’s so uncomfortable, it can be downright painful. When your brain has been dependent on alcohol and you remove the substance from your system, your brain was essentially asleep and now is waking up.
It’s also important to note that if you are seeking to become sober, you should find out what kind of treatment is offered at nearby rehabilitation centers. Some offer drugs to assuage anxiety and cravings, but others do not. Figure out what will work best for you before going to the nearest rehab.
When Will My Anxiety Improve In Sobriety
Again, it’s important to address that alcohol (and consequently, sobriety) may not cause or create anxiety issues. Alcohol can (and often does) increase/enhance anxiety issues (and vice versa), but they do not directly cause one or the other. In other words, removing one disorder does not cure the other. Both disorders need to be treated to ensure your anxiety improves in sobriety.
That said, based on the responses we have received from the I Am Sober App community, the majority of people see an improvement in their anxiety by the 2 week mark.
What Are Some Ways I Can Improve My Anxiety?
Professional help in the form of therapy or psychiatry is always beneficial – even if you don’t have a mental disorder. It helps to talk through your thoughts and feelings with an objective third-party so you can become more in touch with yourself and more cognizant of your actions. To improve your anxiety, consider some of these tips:
- Challenge Your Thoughts
Frequently, those suffering from anxiety will suffer through a string of rapid thoughts and counterproductive “what ifs” both in the past and present. However, one of the useful ways to overcome this problem is by imagining the scenario to its full extent. As you built out the details and future pathway, frequently the “catastrophizing” diminishes and you recognize that you can abandon the thought.
- Avoid Substitute Drugs
It’s all too common for addicts to substitute their substance with another (less harmful) substance in hopes that they won’t relapse. By redirecting your addiction to candy, video games, food, or caffeine you can avoid the most harmful, but it’s a temporary fix, not permanent. What’s more, many of these items listed here will also contribute to your social anxiety in the same way alcohol did.
- Be Calm Or Meditate
One of the best ways to combat anxiety is by doing some internal inventory and focusing on your breathing. Frequently, rapid thoughts and negative self-criticisms come from a voice in our heads pushing us to do more. Instead of focusing on that voice, focus on your breathing and meditate. This way, you can remove the rapid thoughts altogether.
Again, the best thing you can do to improve your anxiety is to stop feeding it fuel (in the form of alcohol) and have the disorder treated by a professional in the same way you should (would) for alcohol addiction.