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Anxiety and Alcohol

This page added 2 April 2012
By Susan, ADAVIC Volunteer

Alcohol is the most widely used mood-changing recreational drug in Australia, with 90% of the population having drank it at some time during their life. Many misuse it to control their mood, such as fear and anxiety. For example, people with anxiety disorders use alcohol as a self-medicating method to help them relax and cope with fear and anxiety (Kushner, Sher, & Beitman, 1990).

So what does alcohol do to our body that makes sufferers inclined to use alcohol? Alcohol is a depressant which depresses the central nervous system. Alcohol has a sedative effect and produces a sense of euphoria, relaxation, and decreased inhibition, which seemingly provides temporary relief from anxiety.

The problem with using alcohol to temporarily cope with anxiety is that it can lead to chronic alcohol abuse, increased dependency and tolerance to alcohol, and damages to many organs of the body (including the brain, liver and heart). Soon after, anxiety sufferers will be required to consume more alcohol just to achieve the same level of effects (relief from anxiety). This is called tolerance to alcohol. When people try to reduce or stop their alcohol intake, they will experience what is called “withdrawal symptoms”. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include anxiety disorder-like symptoms such as: anxiety, panic attacks, elevated blood pressure and heart rate, increased body temperature and agitation.

People find themselves with even more anxiety symptoms when trying to stop their alcohol intake, making it even harder for them to withdraw from alcohol (Brady, Tolliver & Verduin, 2007). Interestingly, people with anxiety disorders are three times more likely to have an alcohol and substance abuse issue than those without (Brady, Tolliver & Verduin, 2007). Therefore, alcohol has the potential to interact with anxiety in a downward spiral, leading to increased severity of both the anxiety disorder and drinking problems (Kushner, Sher, & Beitman, 1990).

So please stay away from alcohol as method of reducing anxiety. For those who are already at the stage of “problem drinking” with dependency and tolerance to alcohol and you want to stop destructive alcohol habit, then you should seek help or contact your doctor. Do not try to stop your alcohol intake without the help from professionals. Remember, your brain is used to the constant presence of alcohol and has adjusted its way of communicating to other nerve cells (i.e. neurons). As soon as you decrease the alcohol level in your body, the level also decreases in the brain and the withdrawal symptoms will kick in.

The symptom manifestations can range from mild insomnia to severe consequences such as delirium tremens, disorientation, hallucinations, seizures and even death. Even though the manifestations can be different from one person to the other, that is one person may not have severe symptoms like others for the same amount of alcohol intake, still it is suggested that you consult your doctor if you suffer withdrawal symptoms from alcohol.
In conclusion, what begins as a way to cope with anxiety, can quickly have the opposite effect by increasing distress and anxiety.

Where to go for help if you or someone you know has problems with alcohol?

Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.

Further information can be found at:

Brady, K. T., Tolliver, B. K., & Verduin, M. L. (2007). Alcohol use and anxiety: Diagnostic and management issues. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 164, 217-221.

Kushner, M. G., Sher, K. J., & Beitman, B. D. (1990). The relation between alcohol problems and the anxiety disorders. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 147, 685–695.

Saitz, R. (1998). Introduction to alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol Health and Research World, 22(1), 5–12.

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