The vicious circle of alcoholism and anxiety



It is believed that most adults use alcohol responsibly. It is usually a matter of relaxing after a long and hard day or drinking at a gathering. This way of consuming alcohol is considered socially acceptable and common. If used consistently, it is rarely associated with alcoholism or alcohol dependence.

On the other hand, even the occasional consumption of alcohol by certain people can be a problem. This primarily applies to people with certain mental health disorders, such as anxiety or panic disorder. Such people often develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. For others, alcohol is a way to deal with the symptoms of mental illness.

Numerous studies indicate that alcoholism and anxiety disorders often occur together. Research suggests a possible link between genetics and the environment, and the mechanisms associated with addiction and anxiety symptoms. With that in mind, it is not surprising that the treatment of one condition requires adequate treatment of the other.

Mechanisms of the effect of alcohol

Alcohol depresses the central nervous system. When someone drinks alcohol for the first time, it often has a calming effect. It creates a feeling of euphoria and reduces inhibition in a person. In this way, it may seem that the use of alcohol provides relief from anxiety.

However, the long-term effects of alcohol use can cause anxiety or worsen the symptoms of anxiety disorder (maladaptive behavior). Chronic alcohol use can lead to increased tolerance to alcohol and / or alcohol addiction. Also physical damage to the brain, heart and liver.

Alcohol use disorder and anxiety disorders

To help them cope with anxiety and fear, people with anxiety disorders, including agoraphobia and panic disorder, sometimes resort to alcohol as a “solution” to their condition. This is called the “tension reduction hypothesis”. It explains how alcohol is used as a method of self-healing to reduce stress and anxiety.

One possible explanation for this is the genetic link that affects the level of anxiety and alcohol use. These biological theories explain the symptoms of anxiety and the behavior of alcohol use by the existence of certain mechanisms in the brain.

In some cases, this can lead to the use of increasing amounts of alcohol. The person expects the alcohol to provide some relief from the symptoms of anxiety.

Certain studies explain this by a component of expectations in people with anxiety disorder who use alcohol. Namely, they expect to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety when they consume alcohol due to its effect on the central nervous system. The behavior of people who consume alcohol becomes related to anxiety level and their expectations from alcohol.

This scenario suggests that the more people feel anxiety, the more they tend to drink in an attempt to alleviate it.

A person with an anxiety disorder is three times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder at some point than people who have never been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Also, alcohol use disorder is more common in people diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder, or social anxiety disorder.

Social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia

The appearance of symptoms characteristic of social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia can be a trigger for many people to develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. For example, if you are struggling with social anxiety and you are afraid of going to places where there will be many people you do not know, even the thought of going to such places can cause you great discomfort.

When these symptoms become unbearable, people often reach for a “cup” in an attempt to reduce discomfort. If this sounds familiar to you, you also know that in situations like this, people consume alcohol in order to feel more relaxed or less constrained in their contact with others.

Alcohol is often seen as a short-term solution. But it can also lead to a number of problems. 

When people drink to alleviate the symptoms of a mental condition, alcohol can very quickly become a “crutch”. If they continue to use alcohol to feel more relaxed or less uncomfortable, they very often begin to avoid social situations in which they cannot drink.

Long-term use of alcohol can also develop tolerance. Tolerance is one of the characteristics of addiction. This means that the person starts drinking more to achieve the desired effect. At the beginning, one glass of wine is enough for relaxation… But, as time passes, one glass turns into two, three or more in order to achieve the same feeling.

Generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder

Research has shown a different trend of alcohol abuse in people diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder. For many people with these disorders, unhealthy alcohol use generally begins at the same time as the symptoms of the disorder.

The link between excessive alcohol use and these disorders has not yet been fully established. However, it is possible that the initial symptoms of anxiety and panic start when the person stops drinking. One of the explanations is that the use of alcohol creates a mechanism for the development of these disorders.

People with generalized anxiety or panic disorder are more prone to unhealthy alcohol use. Also, the symptoms of a mental condition related to anxiety often coincide with excessive alcohol use.

Consequences of alcohol abuse

Even if someone starts drinking alcohol as a way to deal with anxiety, it can quickly have the opposite effect. For example, frequent use of alcohol or the use of large amounts of alcohol can cause a hangover.

Symptoms of a hangover, such as nausea and vomiting, dizziness, dehydration, and low blood sugar, can greatly impair daily functioning. If someone is sick due to a hangover, it can happen that they perform their duties inadequately or insufficiently at home, at school or at work – which in turn can increase anxiety.

Alcohol abstinence crisis is a frequent consequence of severe or regular alcohol abuse. 

There are numerous similarities between the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and anxiety disorders. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include anxiety, increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased body temperature, nausea, panic attacks, vomiting and irritability.

The very process of alcohol withdrawal is a vicious circle. It can lead to increased anxiety and repeated and increased alcohol abuse.

How to recognize someone is an alcoholic?

Whether or not it is a mental health disorder, such as anxiety, there are certain patterns of behavior that can signal that excessive alcohol use could be a cause for concern. You may recognize this behavior in yourself or in people around you, and it is very important that you consult an expert about it.

Signs of alcoholism are:

  • Frequent or excessive use of alcohol (four or more times a week, or five or more drinks during the day).
  • The need for alcohol is such that you cannot stop. Very often people feel that they need to drink in order to be able to function in everyday life, to cope with a difficult situation.
  • You feel you need to drink to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
  • You feel ashamed, guilty or have remorse for drinking. These feelings, without the support you need to deal with them, can greatly complicate the way you deal with the problem.
  • Trying to get rid of feelings of guilt and shame and escape from unpleasant feelings makes you drink more.
  • Extremely important (external) sign is when people in your life express concern about your attitude towards alcohol. Your partner, parents, children, friends, employer or co-workers are also facing the consequences of your unhealthy alcohol use.

What to do then?

If a person close to you has problems with unhealthy alcohol use, what you can do is:

  • Ask her to stop drinking or to drink less
  • Ask her to seek help or support
  • Express concern, anger, frustration, sadness, fear or any emotion you have in this regard
  • Directly show the consequences (loss of job, divorce, inability to see children, health problems) if the person refuses to stop drinking or to seek professional help.

Treatment of alcoholism and anxiety disorders

If you use alcohol as a self-medication, it may seem to help you deal with anxiety symptoms. In the short run, this can work. However, it can create a number of problems in the long run.

If you have an anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse and withdrawal can actually make your symptoms worse.

If you have an anxiety disorder and use alcohol to be able to function at all, it is necessary to seek the help of a mental health professional.

It is never too late (or too early) to seek help for any mental health disorder or substance / alcohol disorder.

It is important to know that you are not the first to deal with these problems and that numerous experiences of other people show that it is possible to lead a quality and fulfilled life, no matter what disorder is in question.

There are a number of effective treatments for alcohol anxiety and disorder. Individual therapy, group therapy, medications, or a combination of these methods, are some of the solutions.

If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety or alcohol addiction, contact LORIJEN Center for information on support and treatment:

(+381) 69 30 88 090 or (+381) 69 30 88 091 (mobile or WhatsApp/Viber)



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