Stress is an unavoidable part of life. We all experience it in varying degrees and from different sources – work, relationships, finances, health issues, and more. Many people turn to alcohol to “take the edge off” and temporarily relieve stress. However, while alcohol may provide short-term relief, it actually exacerbates stress over the long run. Alcohol and stress form a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.
In the moment, alcohol acts as a sedative that reduces anxiety and inhibition. The pleasurable effects occur because alcohol increases the activity of GABA, a neurotransmitter that inhibits brain activity. When GABA is activated, nerves fire less frequently, resulting in relaxation, calmness, and drowsiness. A drink or two can make people feel looser, more sociable, and less worried. This is the short-term stress relief people seek from alcohol.
However, the effects are fleeting. After a couple of hours, as alcohol is metabolized by the liver, GABA activity declines and anxious feelings often return with a vengeance. Alcohol also disrupts sleep, leading to tossing and turning during the second half of the night. Hormones released during the later sleep phases help regulate emotion and mood. When deprived of restorative sleep, people often feel more on-edge and prone to stress.
Hangovers are another way alcohol exacerbates anxiety. The after-effects of headache, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue leave people feeling agitated and fragile. Experiencing repeated hangovers activates the body’s stress responses. The heart pumps faster, breathing quickens, blood pressure rises, and muscles tense up. Being hungover at work often leads to poor performance, conflict with co-workers and bosses, and stress over job security.
Heavy, long-term alcohol use has other effects that increase stress levels. Due to impaired cognition and motor skills, excessive drinking leads to problems like damaged relationships, unstable finances, and legal issues. These alcohol-related problems all become major sources of stress. Additionally, consistently high alcohol intake can dysregulate the body’s stress hormonal system. It alters production of cortisol, norepinephrine, and other hormones in a way that leaves a person feeling chronically on edge.
Essentially, alcohol tricks the body into feeling relaxed while under the influence, but then you pay back that temporary relief with higher anxiety and dysfunction when sober again. It’s like putting stress charges on a credit card that come back to haunt you.
For people trapped in the alcohol and stress cycle, cutting back or quitting drinking can provide huge anxiety relief. Recovery gives the brain a chance to regain its natural equilibrium. Meditation, therapy, medication, nutrition, exercise, social support, and overall lifestyle changes help stabilize mood and keep stress in check.
However, quitting alcohol after heavy use can itself be stressful. Someone who has relied on alcohol for years to alleviate anxiety may need to carefully taper their intake to avoid severe rebound anxiety. Quitting cold turkey can be dangerous for long-term heavy drinkers. Medications like benzodiazepines ease the transition by reducing withdrawal symptoms. Getting professional help via an inpatient or outpatient alcohol treatment program can greatly smooth the path to sobriety.
In conclusion, alcohol and stress have a cyclical relationship. While alcohol temporarily reduces anxiety, it actually worsens and perpetuates stress in the long run. The only way to break the vicious cycle is to either cut back substantially or quit drinking altogether. With the right supports and lifestyle changes, becoming alcohol-free allows healthy, sustainable stress management. It provides relief that doesn’t come at a cost.