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Alcohol and Anxiety

Estimated reading time: 27 minute(s)

Anxiety and alcohol use disorder often go hand in hand and can seriously impair an individual’s daily functioning. While alcohol is known to exacerbate an already-existing anxiety disorder, some proponents also believe it can trigger new symptoms. Whether alcohol use is triggering anxiety or exacerbating it for some, it is imperative to do something about it before the situation worsens.

If you or someone you love have been struggling with anxiety and alcohol use disorder together, it is possible that both conditions are fueling each other. In such circumstances, understanding how alcohol affects anxiety and how to control these issues healthily and safely is necessary.

Does Alcohol Cause Anxiety: The Concept of Hangxiety and its Symptoms

Many people experience a hangover following a drinking session. This hangover usually involves multiple physical symptoms, such as dizziness, headache, nausea, and fatigue. In some people, it also triggers various psychological symptoms, such as panic, depression, and anxiety.[1] Some people tend to feel more anxious than others following an alcohol-drinking session, which experts now call hangover anxiety, post-beer fear, or hangxiety.

Hangxiety can easily make anyone feel on edge, nervous, and unable to relax. Following is the alcohol effect on anxiety in such people:

  • Feeling depressed and anxious
  • Racing heart
  • Fear and paranoia
  • Feelings of existential dread
  • Feelings of regret and embarrassment about the behavior last night
  • Worrying that you are unable to remember everything about last night
  • Over-analyzing everything you said or did during the alcohol binge session
  • Symptoms related to panic attacks
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to relax
  • Seeking reassurance from other people about the behavior last night

For some people, the experience of hangxiety can be so debilitating that they may be tempted to stop drinking altogether. The experience can be particularly unpleasant if it occurs alongside other physical symptoms of a hangover. Factors like dehydration, poor nutrition, and tiredness can also negatively impact the mood, making a person more emotional and highly vulnerable to hangxiety.

Exploring the Vicious Cycle Between Alcohol and Anxiety

The idea that alcohol reduces stress holds some truth. Alcohol is a sedative that acts on the central nervous system to calm it down. Drinking also reduces fears and takes the mind off of daily troubles. It can also make a person feel less shy, boost their mood, and relax them mentally and physically. Some people also believe that the effects of alcohol on the mind are similar to those of antianxiety medications. Hence, unwinding with alcohol may not be necessarily dangerous if a person does it occasionally after seeking approval from a doctor. However, once they start drinking, their bodies begin developing a tolerance to this beverage’s de-stressing effects, making anxiety even more difficult to cope with.

The sense of relaxation that people may feel when they drink is due to the rising blood alcohol content (BAC). When the BAC levels rise, it leads to temporary feelings of excitement, but when these levels go down, they may trigger depression. As a result, many people initially feel relaxed when they start drinking but soon start feeling more anxious when the BAC levels return to normal.

Consuming alcohol has also been linked with noticeable mental and physical consequences. Over time, drinking too much alcohol may lead to memory loss, blackouts, and even brain damage. These issues also sometimes lead to anxiety as individuals struggle to cope with their symptoms.

How Alcohol Worsens Anxiety?

Many people are unsure about the exact relationship between anxiety and drinking. Once a person starts drinking and alcohol gets into their system, it acts on the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain and alters them, which triggers anxiety. When the effects of this alcohol start wearing off, these feelings of anxiety are likely to worsen. This alcohol induced anxiety or hangxiety may last for several hours or sometimes throughout the day following the last drink. [2]

Using alcohol to cope with anxiety, especially social anxiety, has been deemed dangerous by experts for a long time. This type of social anxiety makes social situations unbearable for people; hence, they start relying on alcohol to make them more bearable. Doing so leads to the development of alcohol dependence which makes the anxiety symptoms worse in the long run. This is the very reason why around 20 percent of people with social anxiety also suffer from alcohol addiction at the same time.

In addition to needing alcohol to feel more comfortable, other signs of alcohol dependence in a person with anxiety may include the following:

  • Needing a drink as an eye-opener every morning
  • Requiring a drink in every social situation
  • Drinking five or more alcoholic beverages per day
  • Drinking heavily for at least four or more days per week
  • Failure to stop drinking

Consuming alcohol in very high doses may also lead to hangovers, making an individual more anxious than before. These symptoms include:

  • Dizziness
  • Dehydration
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Low blood glucose

Can Drinking Every Night Cause Anxiety? How Does the Problem Begin?

While it’s a well-known fact that alcohol worsens anxiety, many people wonder if it can trigger the problem in the first place. According to experts, the long-term consequences of alcohol abuse include various health problems, including mental issues. Research has indicated that people with alcohol use disorder find it challenging to recover from a trauma in the past. This is possible because of the effects of alcohol which eventually change brain activity. Long-term alcohol abusers are also predisposed to acquiring an anxiety disorder; however, the risk is considerably less in mild to moderate drinkers.

Increased anxiety is also one of the most typical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. People who consume large amounts of alcohol for a long time period and suddenly stop using it may experience very high levels of anxiety as a part of the withdrawal process. Other symptoms of this withdrawal may include the following:

  • Sweating
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Hallucinations
  • Heart rate over 100 beats per minute

Alcoholism and Anxiety: How to Keep Your Anxiety Under Control After Drinking?

Most people find it impossible to completely calm themselves down if they experience alcohol-induced anxiety or hangxiety. However, there are some things that can be helpful to make the overall experience a bit easier.

  • Stay calm and give yourself some time to rest. Reassure yourself that whatever you are feeling is a temporary feeling that will go away within a few hours
  • Take part in a self-help group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, if you need help with your alcohol use.
  • Raise your awareness and education level about anxiety. Take some time out to understand whether your alcohol use is causing or exacerbating your anxiety.
  • Commit yourself to reduce alcohol or quitting it altogether, especially if alcohol-induced anxiety is interfering with your daily life.

Do not be afraid to seek help from a professional rehabilitation center if you require assistance with quitting it. A rehab center includes professionals with experience and training in helping people get over alcohol use disorder and lowering its impacts on their daily life.

FAQs

Why does alcohol cause depression and anxiety?

Alcohol is a depressant that slows down the processes in the human brain and the rest of the central nervous system. This beverage initially makes a user feel less inhibited and relaxed; however, these effects wear off quickly. For most people, alcohol use can make things worse if they are already experiencing the symptoms of anxiety. Over time, the brain of regular heavy drinkers gets used to the depressing effects of alcohol which means that the brain takes a hit as soon as the alcohol levels in the blood drop. This drop in alcohol content can even trigger a fight or flight mode in the body, the same reaction that anxiety triggers.

What does alcohol induced anxiety feel like?

Hangxiety or alcohol-induced anxiety usually comes with an uneasy and uncomfortable feeling that begins after drinking a large amount of alcohol. This feeling arises as alcohol enters the bloodstream, reaches the brain, and increases the levels of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. As dopamine levels increase, a signal in the body and the brain temporarily relieves all feelings of anxiety. However, as the alcohol levels begin to drop within a few hours, individuals start feeling rebound anxiety along with other uncomfortable symptoms, like depression and sadness, as their dopamine levels start to fall down. When the effects of alcohol decline entirely, many people begin feeling anxiety or shame about their words or actions when they spoke or did under the influence of alcohol. Others may feel more irritable or agitated than usual.

How long does alcohol-induced anxiety last?

The duration of anxiety caused by alcohol varies from one person to another. Most studies have found that this type of anxiety can last from 14 to 16 hours following the initial hangover. In other studies, these effects have lasted up to 24 hours after the beginning of the initial hangover symptoms. For someone physically dependent on alcohol, the anxiety symptoms can last for 3 to 7 days as a part of alcohol withdrawal. For such people, the symptoms are notably worse in the first 48 hours, following which they begin to tone down. In very rare cases, the symptoms of hangxiety may persist beyond seven days and may require professional management.

Can quitting alcohol truly cure anxiety?

Yes, quitting or reducing alcohol intake can decrease the severity and frequency of anxiety symptoms. However, this is only true in hangxiety, i.e., the type of anxiety triggered by alcohol use. Even if what you experience is not hangxiety, quitting alcohol and other mind-altering substances can make anyone feel more level-headed and grounded while providing them with a beneficial baseline to seek treatment for all co-occurring issues together.

References

1 Anker, J. J., & Kushner, M. G. (2019). Co-Occurring Alcohol Use Disorder and Anxiety: Bridging Psychiatric, Psychological, and Neurobiological Perspectives. Alcohol research : current reviews, 40(1), arcr.v40.1.03. https://doi.org/10.35946/arcr.v40.1.03

2 Smith, J. P., & Randall, C. L. (2012). Anxiety and alcohol use disorders: comorbidity and treatment considerations. Alcohol research : current reviews, 34(4), 414–431.

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