Alcohol & Anxiety

Updated: Mar 10

Why Not Drinking is the Best Thing You can do for Anxiety





Extract from Love Yourself Sober

We can be forgiven for thinking that booze helps us to deal with anxiety and depressive thoughts and, indeed, it’s pretty socially acceptable to drink to help you relax or overcome feelings of depression. We have grown up seeing it on TV, in films, and in our real lives. The reality is very different.

Scientists classify alcohol (ethanol) as a Central Nervous System depressant, meaning that it slows down brain functioning and neural activity. Alcohol does this by enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which makes us feel calmer and less socially anxious. However, scientific research shows us that self-medicating with alcohol to combat anxiety can become self-perpetuating.

The term ‘hangxiety’ describes the increase in anxious feelings after drinking. Many of us have used alcohol to make us feel calmer. However, after three or four drinks, as well as enhancing the effects of GABA, alcohol also starts blocking glutamate, the main ‘excitatory’ transmitter in the brain. The more glutamate you have, the more anxious you are, so blocking this may sound good, but when the body registers the imbalance between glutamate and GABA it attempts to put it right. This is explained by Professor David Nutt in his article on Hangxiety. ‘When you are drunk, your body goes on a mission to bring GABA levels down to normal and turn glutamate back up. When you stop drinking, therefore, you end up with unnaturally low GABA function and a spike in glutamate – a situation that leads to anxiety’. It can take days for the levels in the brain to balance, therefore we feel ‘the fear’ or ‘hangxiety’ due to this spike in glutamate, and then we tend to feel more anxious and need more alcohol to ‘numb’ it. In the long term, this can lead to becoming tolerant of alcohol – that is, needing increasingly large amounts of drink to experience the same reduction in our anxiety. It is also difficult to maintain exactly the amount of alcohol needed to reduce the negative feelings. Keeping the optimum balance to reduce anxiety is almost impossible because the effect of alcohol on the brain is such that after the initial ‘euphoria’ from the first drink, alcohol acts as a depressant and feelings of anxiety may rapidly return. As writer Laura McKowen so accurately wrote, ‘Alcohol poured gasoline on my anxiety.’ If you already have a tendency to anxiety, drinking is only going to exacerbate that the morning after the night before. What’s worse is that the anxiety tends to hit while you are sleeping off the effects of alcohol. This explains the telltale 3 am wake-up with an impaired memory, racing heart, sweaty skin, and regret, which is the pattern for so many of us who develop a problematic relationship with booze – and if our sleep is poor, this is a significant contributory factor in poor mental health. Professor Nutt’s article also explains that imbalances in GABA and glutamate are not the only problem. Alcohol causes a small rise in noradrenaline – known as the fight-or-flight hormone. Noradrenaline suppresses stress when you first take it, but increases it in withdrawal, so severe anxiety can be considered a surge of noradrenaline in the brain. In addition to affecting GABA and glutamate, alcohol releases dopamine – the neurotransmitter chemical responsible for pleasure and reward. This causes people to drink even more in an attempt to increase those feel-good feelings that dopamine produces, which can lead to addiction. In a world where we are increasingly anxious, we can ask ourselves are alcohol brands being responsible with their labelling around mental wellbeing and alcohol? With this knowledge we can ask ourselves - am I hurting my brain and my wellbeing by drinking?