Many people who experience anxiety or depression may turn to alcohol to try and escape their problems. It’s a vicious cycle–which can actually make these conditions worse. Alcohol addiction can increase feelings of anxiety and depression, which in turn can cause someone to drink even more alcohol as a way to cope. This cycle is very difficult to break and can lead to low quality of life and serious health problems in the long term.
Alcohol’s Effects On The Brain
Consuming alcohol has both short-term and long-term effects on a person’s brain. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. Basically, GABA stops certain signals in the brain from being sent. When someone drinks alcohol, GABA activity in the brain increases, which has the effect of suppressing neuronal activity an unusual amount. Among other things, this results in slurred speech, impaired memory, and reduced inhibitions. If someone drinks enough alcohol, they may even blackout and be completely unable to remember what is happening.
The brain adjusts to alcohol by producing less GABA. As the effects of alcohol wear off, many people notice symptoms like increased anxiety. Without enough GABA to, in effect, calm it down, an overactive brain can respond to harmless situations in unhelpful ways—and having trouble remembering last night doesn’t help. One study found that 24% of panic disorder patients had a history of alcohol dependence. It’s a similar story for the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Drinking alcohol might boost your mood initially, but the effects wear off faster than your brain can balance. Low dopamine or serotonin levels can cause a person to feel down or depressed the next day.
It’s easy to see how someone might react to these circumstances by reaching for another drink. Unfortunately, this not only delays your brain’s recovery, but it actually makes things worse. Long-term heavy drinking can significantly alter a person’s brain chemistry. Your brain adjusts its neurotransmitter production downwards, and the withdrawal symptoms become even more noticeable. The urge to drink may become stronger, and this downward spiral can become challenging to escape for many people.
Physical Effects of Alcohol Abuse
In addition to its negative impact on the brain, alcohol addiction can take a heavy toll on the body. Drinking can increase the risk of serious diseases, such as pancreatitis and liver disease. The damage years of heavy drinking can do to the liver is often irreversible, with a liver transplant being some patients’ only option.
Alcohol abuse can also lead to a weakened immune system. The effects of heavy drinking can impact sleep, and cause headaches and feelings of fatigue, which can all make a person feel unwell, unmotivated, and unproductive. Feeling this way makes finding the energy to exercise challenging, which is a crucial component of overall health and well-being. This lack of physical activity can compound the problem by leading to a further lack of energy and potentially leaving a person even more depressed.
The Detrimental Effects of Alcohol on Everyday Life
Alcohol addiction can have severe and far-reaching negative consequences on a person’s relationships, employment, and overall well-being. Researchers found that romantic relationships where one person drank significantly more than their partner were associated with poor outcomes. Alcohol addiction is also associated with sexual dysfunction in both men and women, which can adversely affect romantic relationships and lead to more mental health issues.
Another study showed a correlation between binge drinking and fights between friends. Losing the support of friends and family can contribute to depression and anxiety. Alcohol abuse can also affect job and employment opportunities, making someone more likely to come into conflict with bosses and coworkers and more likely to be laid off. The cost of alcohol itself may contribute to financial stress as well.
For some people, drinking can become their favorite pastime, eclipsing all other activities and hobbies and making other parts of life seem less enjoyable or desirable. This preference can prevent someone from moving forward in certain areas of their life or achieving their personal goals, leading to feelings of regret. Activities that do not involve drinking may seem less fun, which can be isolating and lead to even greater reliance on alcohol as a source of enjoyment. All of these factors can contribute to a negative spiral that is difficult to break without seeking help and support.
Alcohol addiction, like anxiety and depression, is a serious mental health disorder that is often misunderstood. The stigma around seeking support for mental wellness can make people reluctant to admit they have a problem. In fact, only 8% of people with alcohol addiction ever seek treatment. But it’s important to understand that alcohol addiction is incredibly common, with one-in-ten Americans over age 12 suffering from the disease. Even more important: help is available.
In partnership with Awakn at Nushama, we find it important to destigmatize alcohol addiction and encourage people to seek new methods for help and support. For example, a local bar may be the center of social life for many people with alcohol addiction. These people may have trouble making new friends when they stop or cut back on their drinking, causing feelings of loneliness and depression that make relapse into addiction more likely.
Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous provide people in recovery with a sense of community that can ease their path to sobriety. Similarly, Nushama offers community programming, hosting year-round events for our members. We are at the forefront of addiction therapy, having partnered with Awakn to provide the KARE program (Ketamine for the Reduction of Alcohol Relapse), a revolutionary new treatment for alcohol addiction. The treatment confronts the trauma at the root of mental health problems and is a new solution with the potential to break the alcohol, anxiety and depression cycle overall.