The Link Between Alcohol and Anxiety: What You Need to Know

Did you know that there’s a strong link between problems with alcohol and anxiety disorders? Here’s what you need to know about these two issues.

Alcohol is a staple of American culture and business. People drink for many reasons, but the overarching idea is to have a good time and relax. With most things, though, alcohol has a dark side.

One part of this side is the way the substance interacts with anxiety. Anxiety and alcohol have a complicated, comorbid relationship. There are situations where alcohol can provide relief from anxiety, so it isn’t that it’s impossible to drink responsibly if you have anxiety.

That said, people should use caution when mixing alcohol and anxiety. We’ll go into detail about anxiety disorders and alcoholism in this article, hopefully giving you a good framework to think about the topics and how they relate.

Alcohol and Anxiety

We’ll cover a little bit about alcohol’s role in the United States. Being such an integral part of a lot of communities, it makes sense that there’s a positive side to the substance. There’s also a great deal of abuse and misuse of alcohol, which we’ll talk about as well.

Anxiety is another prevalent issue in the United States. We’ll give an overview of anxiety disorders as well. Once those ideas are laid out, we’ll shed some light on how they interact and what to look out for.

Alcohol in the United States

The most recent data states there were over 65,000 bars in the United States in 2012. You’d be hard-pressed to find a town without a bar, and this traces back to our country’s origins.

Settlers on the Mayflower brought along more alcohol than they did water. Colonists did believe that becoming too intoxicated was a sin, but they continued to drink at nearly every occasion. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that Benjamin Rush, a physician, suggested that over-consumption of alcohol was a disease which could be treated by avoiding the stuff altogether.

Very few listened. Public intoxication developed into a real issue, one that seemed to be withering the moral fabric of the population. Prohibition came as a result, with the Volstead Act banning the consumption of alcohol. The population worked around the Act, frequenting speakeasies and fostering an environment for organized crime to shine.

The point is, alcohol is, and will probably always be, something people enjoy.

An Overview of Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a disease leading to many adverse, destructive consequences on a person’s life. There are both physical and mental effects which come as a result of alcoholism.

While the majority of people who drink don’t have an issue with alcohol, it holds that there are roughly 18 million people in the U.S. with an alcohol use disorder. The qualification for a drinking use disorder is that a person’s consumption causes harm and distress.

Physical Symptoms

Physically, there are also a few indicators of alcoholism. The first is the person has a strong craving and need to drink alcohol. Cravings can get confused in justifications and reasonings that a person should have a drink, but this thinking is rooted in a physical urge for alcohol.

The next sign is a person can’t stop drinking once they’ve started. A healthy drinker should be able to call it quits when they’ve had enough, but an alcoholic doesn’t have an off-switch. They will often keep drinking until a bar is closed, and even continue on throughout the night and the following day.

An extension of loss of control is the development of tolerance. Everyone who drinks will develop a tolerance, but alcoholics may have a hard time feeling the effects because their tolerance is so high. Further, this person is likely to have withdrawal symptoms if they don’t drink.

This is a sign of physical dependency. The descriptions above are just general and the reality of alcoholism will usually take on some version of them.

Behaviors Associated With Alcoholism

The physical symptoms we’ve listed are usually coupled with behaviors to match. Alcoholism leads people to act in ways that aren’t in line with their values, interests, or wants. In many cases, relationships and lives are damaged.

This involves avoiding responsibilities to drink, drinking while taking care of important responsibilities (like watching children or working), and acting in ways they don’t remember. Anger is often a side-effect of alcoholism, and this can turn into a nasty problem.

This anger can easily turn into abuse. Emotional, verbal, and physical abuse are commonplace for those who are deep in the throes of alcoholism. Further, behavior can become inherently dangerous, risky, hurtful, and erratic.

Anxiety Disorders in the United States

Anxiety disorders are extremely common among adults in the United States. Almost one-fifth of the adult population suffers from an anxiety disorder every year.

“Anxiety disorder” is a term which encompasses a whole lot of specific issues and symptoms. It would be impossible to go into detail about each one in this article, but we’ll touch on some of the most prevalent ones. Issues like general anxiety, major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder are all anxiety disorders.

The causes of these issues are widespread and difficult to identify in many cases. Environmental, genetic, and personal factors all play a part in the development of an anxiety disorder. While the immediate experience of these things is difficult and painful, treatment is possible and many people do recover.

Living a happy, productive life with an anxiety disorder is entirely possible. A lot of those who suffer claim to use the disorder as a valued part of their identity, being a part of what made them who they are.

Identification and Treatment

Mental disorders are often very hard to identify and come to terms with. Even if a person shows clear symptoms of a specific disorder, that person might have absolutely no desire to get treatment or seek help. Further, two disorders might share symptoms, making it hard for professionals to identify the root cause of the behavior.

Stigma is also a reality in the mental health community. Those with anxiety disorders are often silent about them for fear they’ll be deemed “crazy” or seen differently by their friends and family.

It’s a real fear among many people because not everyone understands mental illness enough to be compassionate. Take obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), for example. People with OCD often have intrusive thoughts of horrifying things.

If someone with OCD were to describe the thoughts they were having to someone who didn’t understand the illness, that person might think very poorly of them. While the person with OCD is in no way deranged or harmful, their intrusive and random thoughts might tell them otherwise.

This is just one example, but the fear of others’ opinions is a huge reason mental illness goes untreated.

Interplay Between Anxiety and Alcohol

Now that we’ve gone over alcohol and anxiety individually, let’s talk about how they mix together.

Those with anxiety disorders are often excited by the idea of a substance which can temporarily ease symptoms and allow them to enjoy a night out. It’s true, alcohol removes inhibitions, allows a person to stop overthinking, and is readily available at almost all times.

It’s natural to want to have a night or two away from an anxiety disorder. At the same time, the release alcohol provides can quickly lead to dependence. The behavior becomes a sort of avoidance of mental illness.

This is certainly not a healthy way to combat mental illness and those with anxiety disorders should be acutely aware of their consumption until their latent illness is treated and they’re in control of it. First, drinking to combat internal troubles only prolongs the presence of the illness.

Alcoholism Leading to Anxiety

On the other hand, the development of alcoholism could lead to the presence of an anxiety disorder. Alcohol can contribute to anxiety in a couple of ways.

First, as alcohol consumes parts of your life, there will be general anxiety about those things. Responsibilities, relationships, finances, and more are all likely to be affected by a dependency on alcohol. As those problems mount, the stress will internalize in the form of anxiety.

Second, the physical symptoms of alcoholism are directly related to anxiety in the body. This is especially true for withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms of withdrawal affect anxiety because alcohol works on the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin which are what our brains use to regulate emotion.

The chemical imbalance alcohol provides can make a person’s mood extremely low, their ability to interact and engage very poor, and remove the energy needed to deal with the changes happening.

The interplay between alcohol and anxiety is direct, harmful, and should be monitored carefully.

Need to Find Help?

You or someone you know may be suffering from an anxiety disorder that’s feeding into alcoholism, or visa versa. If you can see any of the patterns of behavior listed above, it may be that alcohol and anxiety are playing a negative part in their lives.

Contact us to see what can be done to benefit the lives of you and those around you.


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