Alcohol & Anxiety: How Are They Related?

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and Anxiety Disorders are commonly co-occurring disorders that can lead to serious health risks and concerns. When a person is struggling with the various symptoms of anxiety, alcohol is often used as a coping mechanism. However, the unsafe relationship between anxiety and alcohol use often leads to dangerous cycles of self-medication and withdrawals.

In order to heal from anxiety or recover from alcohol abuse, it’s important to treat both problems to overcome the dual diagnosis.

What is Anxiety?

The majority of people experience some form of anxiety throughout their lifetimes – often on multiple occasions. Events such as an upcoming doctor appointment, a big presentation, or a competition can often lead to feelings of stress or anxiety for many adults. In most cases, these feelings typically subside on their own without leading to any serious mental health concerns. However, when a person’s anxiety becomes persistent, even without any significant stressor or trigger present, it may be a sign of a social anxiety disorder.

Common symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:

  • Chronic worry or fear about general things
  • Recurring and unexpected panic attacks
  • Chest pain or difficulty breathing due to intense fear or anxiety
  • Feelings of a loss of control
  • Excessive fear of social-based situations

Roughly 18.1 percent of American Adults – around 40 million people – are affected by an anxiety disorder. There are different types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Panic Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
  • Fear-based disorders such as Claustrophobia or Agoraphobia

While “anxiety” is often used by someone as a quick self-diagnosis to describe feelings of nervousness or stress, the term is quite overused. For example, it is completely normal for someone to be nervous before a big event (such as a test in school, a promotion at work, a big game, etc.), but it does not mean they suffer from an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety Disorders like those listed above are far more serious and can be dangerous if left untreated. Despite Anxiety Disorders being highly treatable, only 36.9 percent of people end up receiving treatment. Because of this, many adults unfortunately resort to unsafe self-medication and coping mechanisms such as alcohol use.

Alcohol Use and Abuse

Alcohol use and abuse continues to be a rising concern in the United States. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 25.8 percent of American adults (18 and older) said they had participated in binge drinking within the past month. Binge drinking is defined as the level of drinking required to bring a person’s blood alcohol level (BAC) to 0.08%, which is roughly 4-5 drinks over a two hour period. Another 6.3 percent admitted to heavy alcohol use in the past month.

However, since the 2019 survey, it’s safe to say the country’s problem with alcohol use has not much improved. As the world entered a global pandemic in 2020, alcohol sales in the United States jumped 54 percent during the week of March 15 through the 21st compared to the year prior. Shortly after, in April 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the country of the rise in alcohol use and related health concerns.

Alcohol abuse and addiction is a serious problem that many Americans continue to struggle with today. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a chronic brain disorder defined by the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) as “a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”

Common symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder include:

  • Often drinking more or longer than intended
  • Inability to decrease or stop alcohol use
  • Intense feelings of the desire to drink
  • Relationship or social issues caused by alcohol use
  • Loss of interest in previous hobbies or passions
  • Increased use due to increased alcohol tolerance
  • Depression and/or anxiety

Can Alcohol Cause Anxiety?

Alcohol use is extremely common among those suffering from anxiety. It is often used as a coping mechanism despite the many negative side effects and health risks. Drinking alcohol can worsen existing anxiety symptoms or even lead to new ones. Many people struggling with a dual diagnosis of alcohol abuse or AUD and anxiety may also suffer from Alcohol-Induced Anxiety Disorder.

Anxiety sufferers may unsafely self-medicate with alcohol due to the increase in dopamine production that happens while drinking. During heavy alcohol use, feelings of anxiety are temporarily dulled and a feeling of euphoria can often take its place. However, once the drinking stops, a person’s anxiety symptoms come rushing back. Thus, an unsafe cycle of using alcohol to cope with anxiety can quickly take over.

What is Alcohol-Induced Anxiety Disorder?

Alcohol-Induced Anxiety Disorder is characterized by anxiety symptoms that follow a bout of heavy drinking. This is often caused when someone who struggles with feelings of anxiety uses alcohol to help cope with their symptoms. While alcohol use may provide temporary relief from anxiety, certain symptoms such as sadness or shame may return more intensely during the initial period after heavy use.

Alcohol-induced anxiety may feel like:

  • Intense shame or anxiety about what had happened while drinking (what was said, done, etc.)
  • Increased agitation to normal, everyday things

For example, a person may feel completely euphoric and blissful while they are drinking. Afterward, the feelings of anxiety or depression begin to return. Alcohol-induced anxiety is typically at its worst the first 48 hours after heavy drinking, but can last for over a week.

Getting Treatment for Co-Occurring Anxiety and Alcohol Abuse

Anxiety Disorder is extremely common with alcohol abuse. As a dual diagnosis, it can be extremely difficult for a person to overcome without effectively addressing both co-occurring disorders. The rehabilitation team at Beachway is highly experienced at treating these types of dual diagnoses to help men and women heal from their anxiety and live a life free of alcohol addiction. Please contact our office for more information on dual diagnosis therapy and rehabilitation.