How alcohol can make anxiety worse

Many of us reach for a drink to help us relax. But alcohol could actually make you feel worse – especially if you experience anxiety.

Written by Chloe McLeod
Closeup of unrecognizable adult man slightly swirling a glass of rose wine under his nose and trying to catch bouquet. She's in a wine cellar, there are blurry metal tanks in background. Backlit

When dealing with stressful days or difficult situations, it’s tempting to have a wine or beer to calm your nerves. However, drinking alcohol can actually increase your anxiety, especially if you drink heavily and over a long period of time.

Anxiety in Australia

If you’re experiencing anxiety, you’re not alone. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, affecting 1 in 4 people. According to data from the Medibank Better Health Index, the percentage of young Aussies affected by anxiety and panic attacks has nearly doubled over the last few years. Anxiety conditions are not developed or caused by a single factor; a number of factors play a role, including genetic traits, traumatic life experiences and physical health.

"When the alcohol starts to wear off, so do the pleasant feelings. Many people will begin to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms which can include feeling depressed or anxious."

How does alcohol affect anxiety?

Many of us use alcohol to relax after a long day, or to help manage anxiety in social situations. While it may feel like a good idea at the time, it’s probably doing more harm than good. Alcohol and anxiety work in an endless cycle that can be hard to break.

At first, alcohol starts to depress the part of the brain we associate with inhibition, and this is because it alters the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin. But when the alcohol starts to wear off, so do the pleasant feelings. Many people will begin to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms which can include feeling depressed or anxious.

These feelings may not phase some people, but if you’re already experiencing feelings of anxiety, alcohol withdrawal can magnify them and send you into a spin. Alcohol-induced anxiety can last for around 24 hours after drinking, and many people turn back to alcohol within this period to calm their nerves. And so the cycle continues.

What can you do to break the cycle?

It’s very important not to normalise drinking to calm your nerves. If you think alcohol may be affecting your anxiety, take control immediately. Start by being conscious of the cycle and how alcohol affects your body.

If you choose to drink, stick to 1-2 standard drinks per day. If you’re having trouble moderating your drinking, consider cutting it out completely for a month or two. While this may seem hard to some, it’s the best way to see how you feel at a base level. When you cut out alcohol completely, the brain’s balance of chemicals and processes start to return to normal.

If you’re still struggling to manage your anxiety without alcohol, ask your GP about the help options available to you.

Written by Chloe McLeod

Chloe McLeod is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Director of The FODMAP Challenge.

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