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Yes, Alcohol Makes Your Anxiety Symptoms Worse

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 an increase in anxiety symptoms in your daily life over the years.

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.

Alcohol changes the levels of serotonin and neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemicals help regulate our mood, so we lose those safeguards when alcohol lowers these levels.

You may 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 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.

a paper cut out of a human profile with string used to show a scrambled, anxious brain
how alcohol fuels anxiety

The Relationship Between Alcohol and Anxiety Disorders

People who struggle with trauma and other mental health issues are more likely to abuse alcohol. The inverse is also true. There is a clear relationship between alcohol independence and mental health. They are co-occurring disorders.

Studies have shown that people with alcohol dependence have a 2.6 times higher risk for developing anxiety disorders than those who do not have alcohol dependence.

Unfortunately, anxiety disorders and alcohol abuse have a dark, cyclical nature. Having an anxiety disorder increases the risk of developing alcohol dependence. When someone quits drinking alcohol, the withdrawal symptoms exacerbate anxiety symptoms, ironically, a risk factor for relapse.

And round and round we go.

This is not to paint a hopeless picture but to give you an honest look at the complex relationship between alcohol and anxiety.

It may also help to know that this merry-go-round you’re on is not a sign of weakness.

Can alcohol cause anxiety?

Absolutely! Alcohol fundamentally changes the brain’s structure in ways that make it difficult for people to manage their behavior and moods, making them more susceptible to anxiety and anxiety disorders.

Alcohol is a depressant. It tamps down our body’s fight-or-flight response by suppressing the amygdala. We like this effect. It’s why we drink after a hard day.

The problem is that our brain will overcorrect for the depressant effects of alcohol in our system. Why? The brain likes balance.

It will seek to counteract the sedating effects of alcohol by releasing more excitatory neurotransmitters. As the alcohol wears off, we are left with an artificially high level of stress hormones in the body.

This is why so many people suffer from “hangxiety” the day after a night of heavy drinking.

distorted image of a person sitting on the ground. the distortion represents anxiety
Yes, alcohol makes anxiety symptoms worse

The Impact of Alcohol on Anxiety Medication

If you take medication to help manage your anxiety symptoms and also consume alcohol, I’ve got some bad news for you.

You’ve probably seen the warning on the bottle, “Do not mix with alcohol.”

It’s not just empty words, particularly when we’re talking about anxiety medications. Alcohol does not interact well with these drugs. It can intensify the negative side effects of many of these medications, particularly if you take benzodiazepines.

Most anxiety medications work by calming your nervous system. They effectively slow things down, helping you to relax and reduce your anxiety.

Now, alcohol, being the good old depressant it is, does something similar—it slows down brain activity. Combine these two, and you’re essentially doubling down on the slow-down.

This can lead to heightened side effects, worsening depression, and it might even dangerously slow your breathing.

Antidepressants and Alcohol

If you take antidepressants to help manage your anxiety symptoms, you also do not want to drink alcohol.

Alcohol can also decrease the efficiency of your medication. In simpler terms, it might stop your meds from doing their job properly. There are a few reasons why:

  • Alcohol counteracts your medication, because it increases feelings of depression and anxiety in the long-term.
  • If you take MAOIs, alcohol may cause a dangerous reaction like spiked blood pressure.
  • It may exacerbate cognitive impairments and feeling sleepy or drowsy.

Bottom line, if you’re going to treat your anxiety and depression with medication, you especially do not want to continue drinking.

The Anxiety and Alcoholism Cycle

You’re probably noticing a pattern between drinking to relax and increased anxiety.

A person starts drinking to self-medicate stress and anxiety in their lives. The brain adjusts to the large presence of alcohol by ramping up the production of excitatory neurotransmitters in the body. They feel more wound up after the alcohol wears off.

The physical symptoms of hyperarousal after a night of drinking include:

  • Brain fog
  • Uneasiness
  • Sweating
  • Palpitations
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nervousness

In more serious cases, it can include:

  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Death

This person must now face the day and all its stressors with these physical effects, a recipe for disaster for anyone already struggling with anxiety.

The more someone drinks, the harder the brain must work to restore balance, intensifying anxiety symptoms as the alcohol wears off.

Alcohol and Anxiety Statistics

It’s important to address the reality of co-occurring alcohol abuse and anxiety disorders.

  • 1 in 5 people with anxiety report using alcohol to manage symptoms
  • 20% of people diagnosed with alcohol abuse or substance abuse disorder suffer from an anxiety disorder
  • 50% of people receiving treatment for alcohol dependence meet the diagnostic criteria for one or more anxiety disorders


What the alcohol-anxiety relationship looked like in my life:

By the time I reached my early thirties and evolved into a nearly daily drinker, I noticed new symptoms.

I’d wake up with a racing heart, wanting desperately to crawl under my covers and disappear.

I wanted to jump out of my skin and didn’t know why. I spent countless hours in urgent care, worried my heart would explode or that I was suffering from a serious respiratory illness. My chest hurt, and I felt irrationally terrified.

I joked at the time that I had OCD moments, but I now realize that I was in the early clutches of a full-blown anxiety disorder. And, by the way, had actually developed OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).

A woman with anxiety sits on the ground, wrapped up in her own arms, stressed
understanding the impact of alcohol on anxiety

Things started to get worse.

I don’t know when or 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. Some days, I checked more. Did I turn the knobs off? Good. On bad days, I would leave my apartment and go back up to check once more.

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. 

Can alcohol abuse cause OCD?

The quick answer is no. However, that does not mean there is no clear relationship between the two.

Abusing alcohol disrupts the brain’s chemistry and ability to communicate effectively with the rest of the body. The disruption of the brain’s pathways can impede the brain’s ability to regulate moods and behaviors.

This includes the ability to resist compulsive urges.

Whereas alcohol abuse may not directly cause OCD, it certainly exacerbates the symptoms.

It is not uncommon for people suffering from OCD to use alcohol to cope with symptoms. At first, it might seem like alcohol is an effective tool for quieting the mind. The reality is that alcohol can actually make compulsions more intense.

Over 25% of people with OCD also suffer with an SUD (substance abuse disorder).

Source: https://www.alcoholrehabguide.org/resources/dual-diagnosis/alcohol-obsessive-compulsive-disorder/

“But alcohol is the only thing that helps my anxiety!”

It’s the opposite. I know it might not feel that way, but it’s true.

I, too, used to drink to deal with unbearable anxiety, and I know the relief that a first drink or two can bring.

But those drinks are making your anxiety worse, not better.

Even moderate amounts of drinking have been shown to increase cortisol production, which ultimately makes you feel more stressed, even in your daily life when you aren’t drinking anything.

It also disrupts your body’s ability to manage stress, lowering overall stress tolerance. Over time, you will become stressed more easily by everyday life and experience lower mood quality.

This is the vicious cycle I previously spoke about.

We drink to manage stress and anxiety, not realizing that alcohol changes our brain chemistry and hormones in ways that make us more stressed, anxious, and depressed.

So we keep drinking, hoping to feel better. And we might feel better for an hour or so, but then all those negative feelings come pouring back and round and round we go.

The only way to get off that merry-go-round is to quit drinking. But it’s hard to do that when those first few weeks or months are so difficult to get through as your brain tries to heal and adjust.

It takes most casual drinkers two to six months to restore neural circuits back to their normal state. For heavy drinkers, that recovery time can be significantly longer.

It’s really hard.

For more information on what alcohol does to the brain, I highly recommend listening to the Huberman Lab episode on alcohol. Here’s a short clip from that longer episode you may find helpful:

It gets better, but you have to quit drinking.

Most people don’t want to hear they should quit drinking alcohol, but sometimes our reality necessitates it.

The longer I drank, the more my mental health declined. It was not possible to manage my anxiety or depression without sobriety.

Now you may be saying to yourself, “Well, that’s all well and good, but you and I are different people! Just because you had to quit drinking doesn’t mean I have to.”

I used to have the same attitude. But here’s the thing. You can’t heal or manage an anxiety disorder and continue drinking any more than you can lose weight and eat McDonald’s every day.

The two things fundamentally cannot coexist.

This is not to say that one day in the distant future, you can’t have a glass of wine with dinner, but that will only be available to you after you’ve done some serious work on your relationship with alcohol and received treatment for your anxiety.

Surprisingly (or maybe not so), you may not even want that glass of wine by then.

I’ve chosen to abstain from alcohol indefinitely.

The stakes are too big for me to risk it. I won’t tell you to make the same choice, but quitting alcohol for the foreseeable future is your best option if you want to break free of this cycle.

FAQs on Alcohol and Anxiety

Can I drink alcohol if I have anxiety?

That all depends. When you drink alcohol, how much do you drink? Do you notice after a day of drinking that your anxiety symptoms feel worse? How often do you drink? There are so many factors that go into answering this question.

If you struggle with an anxiety disorder, the most honest answer is that you probably shouldn’t drink alcohol. Too much evidence suggests consuming alcohol will only worsen your anxiety and put you at a higher risk for alcohol dependence.

An occasional glass of wine or beer might be fine, but it depends on how your brain and body respond to it. Moderate to heavy drinking should be avoided.

Can alcohol cause panic attacks?

Whereas alcohol does not directly cause panic attacks, it can trigger them.

Alcohol increases anxiety levels, which can lead to panic attacks. A panic attack occurs when the body’s fight or flight response is activated without a threat.

Alcohol disrupts the balance of chemicals in our brains.

It slows everything way down. Our brains will then attempt to bring balance back to our brains by ramping up excitatory neurotransmitters.

As the alcohol wears off, we are left with an overstimulated nervous system which can lead to intense feelings of anxiety as well as panic attacks.

Can quitting alcohol cure anxiety?

Unfortunately, anxiety disorders are complicated, and quitting alcohol alone is not enough to “cure” anxiety, whatever that might mean to you. Quitting alcohol can, however, greatly reduce your anxiety symptoms and make your life more manageable.

We know that anxiety disorders and alcohol do not mix, and you can expect your anxiety to only worsen if you continue to drink.

Can drinking every night cause anxiety?

It depends. Drinking a small glass of wine every night with dinner will not likely cause anxiety. However, drinking two or more units of alcohol in the evenings disrupts your brain chemistry, leading to increased anxiety the following day.

If you have a nightly drinking habit, pay attention to how you feel in the morning. Are you wound up or more anxious than normal when you wake up?

If the answer is yes, then your drinking is likely to blame. Try cutting back or quitting to see if your anxiety improves.

Are you struggling with anxiety and alcohol abuse?

If you’re stuck in this awful cycle, please know that you are not alone. The first step is to seek help from an experienced medical professional.

Anxiety and alcohol abuse are co-occurring disorders. Your doctor will treat both. Common treatment plans include talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and/or medication. It truly depends on your individual situation and which problem came first – alcohol abuse or anxiety disorder.

As scary or overwhelming as that first step can seem, reaching out for help is the best thing you can do. Ultimately, you’ll have to quit drinking (even temporarily) and make big lifestyle changes to better manage your anxiety.

Please know that it is worth it in the end. (And so are you!)

What to know if you’re at risk for alcohol dependence?

The following quiz is called the AUDIT which stands for Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test. It’s what medical professionals use to assess the risk level of their patients for alcohol dependence.

It is not an official diagnosis nor should it be mistaken for medical advice. You need to visit your doctor for that. But it’s a good starting point if you’re trying to get a reality check on your drinking. Take your results to your doctor or therapist and talk about next steps!

Welcome to your Alcohol Use (AUDIT) quiz

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

How many units of alcohol do you drink on a typical day when you are drinking?

A unit of alcohol is one standard drink. Examples of one standard drink include:

  • 12 oz can of beer with about 5% alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine (roughly 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of spirits like vodka, rum, or whiskey (about 40% alcohol)

How often have you had 6 or more units if female, or 8 or more if male, on a single occasion in the last year?

How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

How often during the last year have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

A black and white image of a woman at her work desk, head in hands, stressed. The title reads Yes, Alcohol makes your anxiety worse.
Alcohol and Anxiety

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  1. I am now 5 weeks sober had a habit of binge drinking over the weekend, over the years , my anxiety went from bad to worse, I would only associate with people after I had something to drink, I was so convinced that I was a boring person and was only fun when I was drank boy was I wrong. Fast forward , 10 days after not taking any alcohol my anxiety and depression started disappearing slowly by a month I felt like my old self , I am fine without the alcohol , I am ready to never drink again if that’s what it takes to feel this great .

  2. Wow this has really helped me thanks so much. I have anxiety and bipolar and am nearly 2 weeks sober I know that doesn’t sound much but I can’t remember a time I’ve gone this long without drinking. But this time I’m ready and strong 💪 I can do this xxx

  3. I get severe anxiety after drinking Im scared to drink but i find myself doing it anyway God Please help me

  4. I don’t quite know how to put into words the way this article made me feel. This is me! I am now 4 days sober. I’ve always had a problem with irregular binge drinking but over the last year this has become more & more regular, culminating in becoming a nightly problem. I have had mental health issues since having my 1st child nearly 7 years ago & of course my increasing drinking hasn’t helped.I have tried to stop in the past but I also went back to thinking “Oh 1 or 2 won’t hurt” & then finding ‘1 or 2’ becoming 10 or 20. I have now got to the point where I am virtually a monster while I’m drunk but barely remember it when I wake up. I am now ABSOLUTELY determined to stop before I lose the thing most important to me, my family. Thank-you so much for posting this article, it’s made me feel like I’m not the only 1 going through this & that if I want it enough I CAN do it. Fuck the zero!x

    1. Thank you for sharing and congrats on taking those first steps! Stick with it, especially when it’s been awhile and the urges try to trick you into thinking you’re all better now and it’s fine to have just one or two. You got this! ??

    2. Hi there.
      How long and how wrong are we all that want the same new journey to have thought that alcohol can blanket and calm our lives. Hell No….
      I have finally realised that the only way that l am going to have a happy and calm and most of all safe lifestyle is to remove the poison.
      It has destroyed so much of my life and l am so ready to walk all over this beast and actually start living with a smile.
      Be strong. We deserve it!!