It’s not unusual for people to use alcohol to alleviate anxiety. However, the relationship between anxiety and alcohol use disorder can become a dangerous, self-perpetuating cycle. Scientific research reveals how habitual drinking amplifies symptoms of anxiety or vice versa. Outside of the medical community, the internet is flooded with information and forums discussing how quitting alcohol cured my anxiety. We decided to explore more on this topic.
Every human being experiences emotions. Some are great. Some really suck. But all are normal and natural. Intense emotions, however, can trigger crippling fear and worry that can manifest into complex anxiety disorders. Anxiety continues to be one of the most common and pervasive mental disorders affecting nearly 40 million people in the United States. They are real, serious medical conditions just like heart disease or diabetes. Unfortunately, the majority of sufferers don’t receive needed treatment – only about 39% do – leaving a gap in care that forces many into dangerous self-medicating practices.
In the absence of medication and treatment, alcohol seems to be among the most widely used substances.
Where does anxiety start?
It’s the question everyone is asking. Certainly, anxiety seems to have increased in recent years. Whether the upward trend is real or imagined, there is no question that anxiety is dominant in the U.S. population.
A Clinical Psychology Review study cites a cultural shift toward extrinsic goals as the leading contributor to anxiety prevalence. The view suggests that motivations are drifting away from the community and onto the individual. In a society where materialism is paramount, there is more opportunity for stronger negative emotions to fester. Is social media a culprit? What about the pressure and stresses of work? Experts agree that anxiety doesn’t derive from the same place, nor does it affect everyone the same.
The truth is that a variety of factors play a role in mental health. These quick facts reveal the reality of society norms today as it related to anxiety:
- According to the National Institute of Health, social isolation and loneliness are predictive of future mental health problems. In 1960, roughly seven percent of adults lived alone, but by 2017, that figure was well over 30%.
- Social media impacts sleep and mental health. Those who frequent a high number of social platforms reported lower self-esteem and high levels of anxiety and depression.
- Although studies remain inconclusive, some key figures suggest that higher rates of mass media consumption correlate with the uptick of anxiety disorders. Measuring this correlation is complex, though.
- A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology concludes that stressful life events are significantly associated with anxiety symptoms.
In summary, anxiety derives from a variety of areas. Understanding anxiety and how it functions provides an opportunity to explore different treatment options. As it stands today, one in five individuals with anxiety report using alcohol to cope simply because they’re not received the necessary treatment. Why, then, are so many prone to using alcohol to manage anxiety? Undoubtedly, the thousands of posts on how “quitting alcohol cured my anxiety” would suggest this is counterproductive and even damaging.
What is Anxiety?
It’s commonly known that alcohol is a depressant, but the truth about how alcohol affects someone who suffers from anxiety is not often discussed. Before we explore the validity of how quitting alcohol cured my anxiety, let’s examine anxiety in general.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America asserts that the term “anxiety disorder” refers to specific psychiatric disorders that involve extreme worry and fear and includes:
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are also closely related to anxiety.
The Brain and Anxiety
Anxiety disorders can happen at any stage of life, but they usually begin by middle age. Women are more likely to have an anxiety disorder than men, says the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The mechanism of anxiety within the brain is complex but essential to understand when exploring how alcohol can negatively impact and even deter the effective management of extreme emotions.
The process can happen as follows: when feeling anxious, the body goes on alert, prompting the brain to prepare itself for flight or fight mode. In an attempt to help fight overwhelming anxiousness, the brain floods the central nervous system with adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones tell the body that something scary is about to happen. Their role is simply to help the person cope with danger. In a non-anxious brain, when the threat is gone, the sympathetic part of your nervous system works to calm the brain and physical body. An anxiety disorder disrupts this calming cycle and, instead, triggers the release of more stress hormones. The resulting process can cause long-term damage, especially if self-medicating with alcohol.
Some quick facts on anxiety and the brain:
- Anxiety disorder incorporates a spectrum from mild, moderate, and severe
- The disorder can make your brain hyperactive to perceived threats
- It’s difficult for the brain to reason with an anxiety disorder
- Anxiety can train the brain to hold onto negative memories
Curing Anxiety with Alcohol
Here is a paradox to consider: I consume alcohol to cope with my anxiety, but discovered later that quitting alcohol cured my anxiety. These thoughts are penned and shared across the internet, forums, and even social media.
Anxiety disorders and alcohol use disorder (AUD) often occur together. Using alcohol “to take the edge off” is a common approach for those experiencing situational anxiety. In the realm of science, it’s known as the “tension reduction hypothesis.” Basically, the theory suggests that alcohol can be used to self-medicate and defend the brain against anxiety symptoms.
Initially, drinking alcohol may help someone to relax. It can definitely make social situations more comfortable to deal with, and problems seem less daunting.
The initial effects of alcohol include:
- Improved mood
- Reduced anxiety
- Fewer inhibitions
- Boost in self-confidence
However, positive feelings are usually short-lived and carry risks. These risks may become yet another source of anxiety-riddled fears. For one, alcohol can seriously undermine a person’s logic and reasoning, leading many to engage in precarious and even dangerous situations. It opens up to the possibility of things going awry, sparking the onset of fight or flight responses, which is the signature of anxiety played on a loop.
A person with an anxiety disorder is three times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. Similarly, studies indicate that AUDs are more prevalent in people with specific mental health conditions like agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder.
You might drink to relax, but it actually has the opposite effect. Anxiety-related emotions and fears are heightened with continued alcohol consumption. Alternatively, alcohol use disorder can trigger an anxiety disorder.
The Reality of Anxiety and Alcohol
Quitting alcohol can cure anxiety. This approach is not difficult to perceive.
Alcohol lowers levels of serotonin, or what’s commonly referred to as the happiness hormone. Decreased levels are associated with increased anxiety. Further, the body will eventually build up a tolerance to alcohol, making it less effective for producing calming and relaxing effects. Additionally, ongoing alcohol use entails a different set of health issues and complications.
“Alcohol acts as a sedative, so it can help you feel more at ease in the short term. When you drink alcohol, it disrupts the balance of chemicals and processes in the brain. The effects and relief of lowered inhibition and increased confidence eventually wear off.” – Dr. Sarah Jarvis, Drinkaware Medical Advisor
A study from the National Institute of Health found that 20% of those with social anxiety have an alcohol abuse problem. Further, a 2014 study by the University of Missouri-Columbia found that drinking alcohol disrupts the body’s sleep homeostasis or sleep regulator. Sleep issues can trigger the onset of anxiety, as well.
Quitting Alcohol Cured my Anxiety
Science suggests finding alternative ways to relax and socialize away from alcohol. For example, heading out for brunch instead of dinner, an exercise class, or spending time outside. These types of activities can significantly lower symptoms and increase happy hormones in the body.
Generally, it’s recommended to monitor symptoms of co-occurring anxiety and alcohol use disorder. If you or someone you love are experiencing any of the following symptoms, it’s critical to identify treatment needs and ongoing therapy. Symptoms can include:
- Feeling nervous or irritable
- Having a sense of imminent danger or panic
- Noticing an increase in heart rate
- Hyperventilating or sweating or shaking
- Feeling constantly tired
- Experiencing an erratic sleep pattern
- Being unable to concentrate
Also, signs of AUD include:
- Experiencing a strong urge or need to drink
- Experiencing blackouts
- Drinking too to experience relaxation during highly stressful moments
- Alcohol interfering with work or home life
- Skipping activities that were enjoyable drink
- Being in dangerous situations under the influence
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms that include anxiety
It’s true. Quitting alcohol, over time, can alleviate intense episodes of anxiety. It can also reduce the possibility of long-term anxiety disorders. Treatment options are available to address dual diagnosis care.
Treatment for Dual Diagnosis
People can usually manage all types of anxiety successfully by using a combination of lifestyle changes, medications, and therapy rather than alcohol. Overall, quitting alcohol can cure anxiety, especially if addressed early on. Habitual alcohol use and continued abuse, on the other hand, may require addiction treatment and rehabilitation.
The outlook with those who suffer from AUD is a little more complicated. AUD is a chronic condition that includes a variety of factors and effects. In most cases, dual diagnosis care provides the most support for addressing anxiety and AUD effectively.
If you’re suffering from addiction to alcohol and anxiety, it can be hard to find the right help. Many people view AUD as a more immediate danger. However, without treating the underlying anxiety, the chances of relapse increase. Reaching out to a dual diagnosis treatment center can help clarify how to address both co-occurring disorders.
AspenRidge Treatment Options
Quitting alcohol cured my anxiety – does it work? Science confirms that abstaining from alcohol use can drastically reduce or eliminate symptoms of anxiety. However, for long-term care, it’s vital to seek experienced help from licensed clinicians with a track record for tackling AUD and anxiety together.
Anxiety disorders can develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. There are several standard approaches for effectively treating anxiety and other similar mental health conditions, including ongoing therapy, medication, trauma-based therapy, etc. However, when approaching dual diagnosis care, it’s essential to select a program that is licensed and experienced in addressing co-occurring disorders.
AspenRidge takes a comprehensive and tailored approach to address both anxiety disorders and alcohol use disorder. Our first step is to evaluate client needs based on historical information such as how long anxiety has been an issue, potential sources, and triggers of anxiety, in addition to addressing alcohol or other substance abuse. Through our various customizable programs, clients can discover sobriety as well as the tools needed to help effectively manage the symptoms of anxiety long-term while remaining sober.
It’s important to note that both conditions are treatable. A few of our program offerings include:
- Partial Hospitalization Day Program
- Day Intensive Outpatient Program
- Outpatient Program
- Online REACH Program
Our wide range of services includes group and individual counseling, addiction therapy, trauma therapy, psychiatric services, and life skills development and aid. If you’re ready to speak with an addiction specialist for free, contact us directly 24/7 at our helpline at 855-306-3110.
Plans are flexible and geared to providing expert services utilizing our continuum care model.