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Does alcohol increase anxiety and depression?

There has been a lot of research into the effects of drinking alcohol and its impact on our mental health, and there is evidence to suggest that alcohol can make mental health issues worse, in fact, alcohol is linked to suicide, self-harm and psychosis.

If you find yourself reaching for alcohol when you’re experiencing low mood or if you’re feeling anxious, you’re not the only one. Many people drink alcohol with the belief that it will help them to relax as we may associate it with having a “good time”, however, it can actually have the opposite effect on us. Whilst alcohol can have a temporary positive effect on our mood, in the long term, it can heighten feelings of anxiety and depression and cause us stress. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the effects of alcohol on anxiety and depression and how we can support you to drink less

How does alcohol affect anxiety?

Anxiety can be defined by a feeling of fear or worry and a person who suffers with anxiety may experience physical symptoms such as shaking or an increased heart rate. There are many forms of anxiety and therefore different reasons for a person to turn to alcohol to “manage” their feelings, but let's think about someone who suffers from social anxiety (a fear of social situations such as meetings). If a person who is socially anxious is with a group of people (whether they know them or not) they may consume more alcohol because they feel it will help them to relax and perhaps even give them a little confidence. Whilst in the short term this may help to suppress their anxiety (as the alcohol essentially acts as a sedative), it can actually heighten their anxiety in the long term as a symptom of alcohol withdrawal. 

The reason we can experience an initial state of relaxation is because after our first drink, the chemicals in our brain change. As this effect wears away relatively quickly, we may find ourselves drinking more or becoming addicted to alcohol. It’s important to also note that the more we drink, the more we can tolerate alcohol, leading us to drink more in order to experience the same effects we did with less alcohol. This can lead a person relying on alcohol to enter a vicious cycle - a typical cycle may look like this:

  • A person drinks alcohol hoping to feel calm
  • Initially, this makes them feel relaxed as the alcohol affects their brain
  • As their body experiences withdrawal when alcohol is processed and its effects wear off, they may begin to feel more anxious
  • They drink again to suppress their anxiety 

How does alcohol affect depression?

Depression is where someone experiences low mood for weeks, months or even years and it can affect their everyday life. As we’ve mentioned, alcohol can have a temporary positive effect on how we feel, which is why many people who suffer from depression will turn to alcohol in an attempt to improve their mood. However, alcohol is a depressant, which means it depresses our central nervous system (CNS); slowing down our brain’s activity, nervous system as well as impairing our emotions and judgement. 

Similar to the cycle we mentioned for anxiety, it can be easy for someone experiencing depression to find themselves in a cycle of drinking. Heavy or regular drinking is linked to symptoms of depression and this can make it difficult to understand what is causing the depression (for instance, is the alcohol causing the depression or is the depression causing the person to drink?) This is because when we drink more, any pleasant effects (such as feeling calm) begin to fade away and we begin to feel negative emotions such as anxiety or depression. 

Signs that your drinking is affecting your mental health

Alcohol can have a huge impact on your mental health and you may notice the following:

  • You often feel tired
  • You’re experiencing low mood
  • You’re feeling more anxious or worried than usual
  • You find it difficult to sleep
  • You often experience hangovers - these can leave you feeling ill, guilty and anxious

The best way to see if alcohol is impacting your mental health is to reduce how much alcohol you consume (especially if you’re drinking over fourteen units a week) or cut it out completely. To work out how many units of alcohol you consume each week and the effects it may be having on your body, you can use this unit calculator. It can be a good idea to make a note of your feelings in a diary so you can notice any changes in your mood. To help get you started, check out our blog post on how to start drinking less alcohol

If you’re still experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression after cutting down on your alcohol intake, you can speak to us, your GP or an NHS recommended helpline.

Benefits of drinking less alcohol on your mental health

Cutting down on alcohol is beneficial for both your physical and mental health, here are some reasons why you should consider drinking less:

    • You will be able to sleep better - having a restful sleep can help to improve our mood and concentration the next day.
    • Your mood will improve - try to resist drinking alcohol when you feel down or anxious and notice how your mood changes. 
    • You’ll have more energy - when we drink, we can feel very tired and unmotivated, by cutting down on alcohol, you can feel more refreshed and notice you have more energy to do activities.
  • You’ll be able to concentrate better - if you drink often, you may notice that your concentration and ability to work is impaired. Drinking less will help you to be more productive and reduce stress. 
  • Your skin will improve - Alcohol can affect your appearance and dehydrate your skin, which may have an impact on your self-esteem. 
  • You may lose weight - you’ll be surprised by the amount of calories in your drinks, find out how you can lose weight by cutting out alcohol.
  • You’ll save money - alcohol isn’t cheap, so by cutting down on the amount of alcohol you buy, you’ll be able to save more!
  • Your overall health will improve - By cutting down on alcohol, you’ll reduce the risks of developing liver or heart disease as well as some cancers.

Looking for support to drink less? 

If you live in Dorset and you’re looking for support in trying to drink less alcohol, we’re here to help! With our friendly team of health advisors and coaches supporting you each step of the way, you can learn how to cut down on your daily alcohol intake. Simply register or chat with us today to find out about the services we offer.

You can even take our Rethink your Drink quiz to learn more about your relationship with alcohol.


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