Can Drinking Alcohol Cause Anxiety?

Many people drink alcohol to relax and reduce anxiety. However, over time, alcohol can actually worsen anxiety symptoms. Understanding the complex relationship between alcohol and anxiety is important for managing both conditions.

How Alcohol Initially Reduces Anxiety

Alcohol is classified as a depressant drug. It slows down activity in the central nervous system, leading to feelings of relaxation and lowered inhibition. For many, having a couple of drinks provides temporary relief from anxious thoughts and worries. The initial effects come on fast as alcohol is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream.

This rapid change in mood provided by alcohol makes it an attractive option for those struggling with anxious feelings or social anxiety. A couple of drinks can make it easier to approach strangers or speak up in groups. Some also use alcohol to cope with anxiety related to stressful events or trauma.

While alcohol may genuinely reduce anxiety at first, this effect fades as more alcohol is consumed. Higher blood alcohol levels actually increase anxiety instead of reducing it.

The Rebound Effect: How Alcohol Increases Anxiety

With regular drinking over weeks and months, the brain attempts to compensate for the depressant effects of alcohol. Brain receptors become less responsive to alcohol and more excitable when sober. This leads to a rebound effect, where anxiety levels spike when alcohol leaves the system.

Hangovers are a prime example of alcohol-related rebound anxiety. As blood alcohol levels drop, the excitability of brain receptors can cause anxiety, jumpiness, insomnia and even panic attacks. Hangovers serve as a mini-withdrawal as the brain struggles to adapt to the sudden lack of alcohol.

For those already prone to anxiety, hangovers can be especially severe. Anxiety may be worse than ever during the days following heavy drinking episodes. Over time, the rebound effect tends to worsen, extending the duration and severity of alcohol-related anxiety.

Other Ways Alcohol Exacerbates Anxiety

Beyond withdrawal-related anxiety, drinking alcohol can contribute to anxiety in other ways:

  • Poor sleep quality – Alcohol disrupts sleep cycles, depriving the brain of restorative deep sleep. Lack of sleep is linked to increased anxiety and irritability.
  • Dehydration and nutrition deficit – Heavy drinking leads to dehydration and reduced intake of healthy foods, negatively impacting mood stability.
  • Worsened depression – Alcohol is itself a depressant and can worsen depressive symptoms when used long-term. Anxiety and depression often occur together.
  • Regret over actions while drunk – Loss of inhibition while drinking can lead to embarassing situations or behavior that increases anxiety when sober.
  • Alcohol tolerance – More drinking is required to get the desired effects as tolerance increases. This makes quitting or cutting back more difficult.

The temptation to continue drinking to immediately reduce anxiety can lead to a vicious cycle. Anxiety sufferers may end up drinking larger amounts, more frequently in attempt to find relief. This only ends up making the anxiety worse.

Getting Help for Alcohol Addiction

For those with severe alcoholism or dependence, rebound anxiety and other symptoms can be so severe that medical help is necessary for safe detox. Supervised detox helps manage withdrawal symptoms including anxiety while safely weaning off alcohol dependence.

Counseling and support groups provide tools for coping with anxiety without relying on alcohol. Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective for breaking the cycle of using alcohol to cope with anxiety. Prescription anti-anxiety medications can also help take the edge off while working towards sobriety.

In summary, alcohol may temporarily reduce anxiety but ends up exacerbating anxiety overall. A comprehensive approach can help break the alcohol-anxiety cycle.