The Connection Between Alcohol And Anxiety
Have you ever woken up after a night of drinking and felt like your heart was beating out of your chest? Maybe you awoke with a sense of panic and overwhelm.
Have you also noticed that after drinking heavily, you feel more anxious and on edge even a day or two later?
If you’re a heavy drinker, meaning you binge drink four or more times per month, you may have noticed over the years an increase in anxiety symptoms in your day-to-day life.
Why does this happen? Does alcohol cause anxiety?
Why Alcohol Makes Anxiety Worse
Here’s the science part. If you drink excessively for long enough, alcohol will begin to alter your brain chemistry. Otherwise healthy people can begin to develop anxiety disorders after long-term use.
This is because alcohol changes the levels of serotonin and neurotransmitters in the brain (yikes!). These chemicals help regulate our mood, so when alcohol lowers these levels we lose those safeguards.
You may start to experience alcohol-induced anxiety which can last for hours or even an entire day after drinking. It’s that next day jittery feeling and a racing heart that you just can’t shake.
The bigger problems start when that anxiety pops up even when alcohol isn’t involved, which starts to happen if you binge for long enough.
Related Post: 9 Surprising Causes Of Anxiety + Tips To Help You Manage
Alcohol & Mental Health Issues
People who struggle with trauma and other mental health issues are more likely to abuse alcohol.
I struggled with depression in my teenage years and, like many young people, learned quickly that you can self-medicate with alcohol. It feels good to seem relaxed and uninhibited.
Sure, I had some embarrassing moments in my twenties when I “spazzed” out while drinking, but who didn’t? Everybody, it seemed, had a good story about the time they got trashed and got into a fight or went apeshit at a party.
It felt normal. Even when I began losing friends after some of these episodes, it never occurred to me to stop drinking. I figured I was a flawed person and the booze just brought it out every now and again.
Those people weren’t really my friends anyway, so who cares?
Alcohol exacerbated my depression. It altered already imbalanced chemical levels in my brain and dragged me further down into some dark places.
I’d spend my entire twenties and the first half of my thirties struggling to get out.
When Your Drinking and Anxiety Get Worse
By the time I reached my early thirties and had evolved into a nearly daily drinker, I noticed new symptoms pop up.
I joked at the time that I was having OCD moments, but I now realize that I was in the early clutches of anxiety. And, by the way, had actually developed OCD.
It only got worse.
I don’t know when or for how long I’d had anxiety, but by the time I was thirty, I found it difficult to leave for work on time. And not for the usual reasons.
I could not shake the feeling that I had left the gas to my stove on and was going to come home to a destroyed apartment.
Every morning, I would check that damn stove five or six times before leaving. Did I turn the knobs off? Good. On bad days, I would leave my apartment and go back up just to check one more time.
I played this game with the door to my apartment as well and, when I had it with me in New York, my car door. Was it really locked?
I’ve turned around three blocks into my walk to the subway just to go back and check what I’d already checked a dozen times.
Dating, Alcohol, and Anxiety
This played out in my dating life as well. I would be overtaken by thoughts of “Why didn’t this guy text me? Why haven’t we hung out this week? Did I say something stupid? Should I message him?”
I would re-read texts or e-mails combing for clues about what I could’ve done wrong. Don’t get me wrong. I knew I was being ridiculous. But it was just like the stove.
Besides, I knew other women who had the same tendencies and saw this kind of neuroses played out in TV series, so I figured it was just what single women do sometimes.
Carrie Bradshaw on ten with drunk texts.
My more rational side tried to distract myself and not worry, but it was a losing battle. Actually, it was a big red flag, but I couldn’t see it. The men certainly did. I remained single for a very, very long time.
Giving Up Alcohol For Good
I’ve learned the hard way that booze and my brain just do not mix. It’s not just that I binge uncontrollably, though that is a huge problem. It’s that I’ve reached a point where any relapse is a game of roulette.
I can’t predict what state I will be in the next day, and I don’t just mean a hangover. That is the least of my worries.
I mean, will I be sad? Hyper? Will I feel like I can’t get settled and have to take a Xanax?
Later in the week, will I suddenly cry while watching a Netflix show that isn’t even that sad? Will I skip around the malls singing and stopping for every distraction?
Or maybe I will be sitting on the couch with my husband and suddenly feel like I’m having a heart attack because my anxiety has popped up to say hello.
When you drink and have mental health problems, you never know what you’ll get and that should be a frightening enough prospect to get anyone to abstain. At least that’s what I tell myself after each of the handful of times I’ve decided to drink in the last six months.
So why hasn’t it been enough to keep me far, far away?
Lessons From Relapse
The killer of sobriety is the illusion that once we start to feel better, our brains work again and our moods are stable. We think we are somehow cured. We’re “normal”! Hooray!
Except, that isn’t the case.
My brain is never going to be “normal” or whatever that means. I’m always going to have to approach problems, situations, and various social settings in ways that may differ from other people.
I’m learning to detach myself from this desire to be “normal.”
I happen to believe that plenty of perfectly abnormal people have accomplished great things in this world. Normality is not necessarily something I need to aspire to.
There will never be a day when I can sit down and have just one drink at dinner, and even if I did, there wouldn’t be any guarantee that it wouldn’t be the beginning of another relapse.
That’s my driving force into 2017. I’m combatting this tendency I have to say, “I’m all better now!” and drink every 4-6 weeks just so I can prove myself wrong and start again from zero.
Giving Sobriety A Fighting Chance
There’s a great scene in House of Cards where the character Doug Stamper is at an AA meeting and he’s talking about his job and the idea of counting.
He says, and I’m paraphrasing, that the most important number he counts is the days of his sobriety, which is 5,185. He talks about how he’s just one drink away from zero and that scares him all the time (an interesting thing to hear if you know anything about his character).
He admits that he is ruthless in his job at times, but that he is equally ruthless with his sobriety because he has to be. Then he says something that continues to stick with me, “Like everyone else in this room, I can’t control who I am, but I can control the zero. Fuck the zero.”
And therein lies my 2017 mantra. Fuck the zero.
If you want more structured journaling support, visit the Sobriety Journals page. I’ve got two digital journals and one print version available on Amazon. Both journals are designed to help you do the deep, emotional work of sobriety and get clear about your relationship with alcohol.
There’s an Early Sobriety edition for people just starting out and another Deep Dive edition for those who want more to explore even further. Click the image to check them out!