Alcohol and anxiety

It is a common assumption that alcohol, in moderation, helps us to relax. For a lot of people that may be true, but for others, alcohol does the reverse and makes them feel more anxious than they were before.

Alcohol and anxiety – when emotions come to the surface

Alcohol tends to bring emotions and memories of experiences to the surface.  If you are someone whose moods, feelings and sensitivity is easily stimulated, then alcohol will likely trigger and set off all kinds of feelings.  This is where anxiety can be experienced, anxieties that relate to people and social situations.

When we speak of anxiety we are referring to a range of psychological and emotional experiences

At one end a certain amount of anxiety is an ordinary and helpful response to a situation. It helps you prepare for things, it is part of how we switch on to the challenges of an upcoming task, perhaps a job interview, or a first date, or preparing to deliver a report at work.

Anxiety in relation to these things is normal.  Part of how you become prepared.  Usually once the event starts you settle down.  You become absorbed in the interaction and feel focused and calm.

But for some of us it is more complicated.

Alcohol and anxiety and social phobias

One form of anxiety is social phobia.  If you experience social phobia you will feel more anxious around people.  When we are in the grip of this kind of anxiety we become particularly sensitive and anxious about;

  • what people think of us?
  • how well we are fitting in?
  • whether people are speaking about us?

Alcohol and anxiety – a negative spiral

When you are in the grip of these kind of anxious feelings it becomes hard to settle.  A spiral of negative feelings about yourself and your experience develops.  And as it does so you lose more control over it, and of how to make sense of what is going on.  The spiral becomes faster, tighter and more uncomfortable.

Alcohol and anxiety and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (the DSM-5) lists Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). When diagnosing GAD, a doctor or psychiatrist would look for links between your worry and anxiety and other physical symptoms.  Worries that become hard to control and which are linked to physical problems such as:

  • restlessness
  • more fatigued than usual
  • sleep problems
  • problems with concentration
  • irritability
  • non-specific physical problems
It is always worth checking whether your anxiety is linked to your alcohol consumption

Alcohol effects people differently.  Mostly, it tends to relax us, so we lose some of our inhibitions.  We loosen up and feel more energised.  But for many people, that state is not maintained, and as the alcohol takes hold, certain elements of our social anxieties start to surface.  Where one moment you were at a party feeling your confidence returning, the next you are starting to become confused and anxious.

I started drinking when I started working.  I was nervous about the work, felt out of my depth.  A drink would settle me down.  And I thought of myself as someone who could take their drink.  It made me feel confident. But then that stopped, and my drinking started to cause me problems.  I would forget things that I had said to people.  I would go to work on a Monday morning and people would give me looks.  I couldn’t remember what had happened and that made me feel ashamed.  I ended up giving up my job.  At first I thought that was the answer.  I started working somewhere else.  Then I started the drinking again.  Back to square one.

Once you introduce alcohol into your system you are initiating a set of processes that occur as your body has to metabolize the alcohol. Generally, people experience pleasant feelings when they start drinking, but as with all drugs, the effects tend to change over time and the pleasant feelings of well-being make way for other feelings.

  • Do you find that alcohol causes you memory problems?
  • Do you worry about what you said or did when you were drinking?

Alcohol tends to lower inhibitions.  If you have strong feelings about something or someone that you would generally keep to yourself, alcohol, because it lowers your capacity to self-check your reactions, is likely to alter your capacity to keep your ideas and feelings to yourself.  You may say things you didn’t mean to and then feel more anxious.  So you go further into the spiral.

Alcohol tends to trigger our dominant ways of behaving.  So, someone who tends to be spontaneous is likely to become more so.  Someone who tends towards a more melancholic or depressed mood is likely to be more depressed.  Alcohol tends to exaggerate our tendencies and character styles.

Alcohol and anxiety – the mood changes

All of the energy that was going into relaxing and loosening up, now starts to fuel anxiety.  At an extreme end, feelings of paranoia, suspicion or jealousy start to take over.  Your experience has gone full circle.  More alcohol at this point brings on more of the same problems.  And the aftermath of drinking and socialising like this, may involve further problems such as memory loss, which tends in turn to make us feel more ashamed and worried and anxious.  So we are drawn further into the spiral.

Do you tend to get more anxious after you have been drinking?

If you recognise that alcohol is increasing your social anxiety, or getting in the way of your capacity to feel well, then you might want to think about doing something about it.

It is one thing to count the units of alcohol that we drink and to recognise a harmful level of alcohol intake, but it is useful to keep an eye on the kind of hangovers you experience.  From the more common experience of headaches, tiredness and fatigue to the more difficult sense of increased social anxiety.

Breaking the dependency on alcohol will alleviate anxiety

Some people find 12-step meetings, Alcoholics Anonymous, a helpful starting point to help them break their dependency on alcohol. Developing a daily habit of sobreity helps them break out of the spiral of anxiety and unmanageability.  Other people may prefer to work in one-to-one therapy.

Contact me

I have twenty years experience of working with people, many who have needed to find a way to adapt and come to terms with themselves and their attitudes to other people.

Giving yourself the chance to speak in a confidential setting is helpful, it may be the beginning of starting to develop greater insight into yourself and your situation. 

It may help you to develop and to create better and more satisfying emotional relationships with yourself and others.

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.