Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as a worry or fear, and is our natural survival response.1 Having occasional anxious feelings is a normal and common response, however if the anxiety becomes too intense and it starts to affect your daily life, it could be sign of an anxiety disorder.2
When we’ve had a difficult day, it can be hard to resist the urge to reach for a drink. However, alcohol can exacerbate any feelings of anxiety you might be having.
How does alcohol affect anxiety?
An alcoholic drink might seem like a good idea at first if you’re feeling anxious because it acts as a sedative making you feel more at ease, it could give you a needed confidence boost, or even help you forget your worries.3
But don’t be fooled by the short-lived ‘benefits’ you might experience. This is because alcohol disrupts the balance of chemicals in the brain, so the alcohol starts to depress the part of the brain that controls our inhibition.3 As these feelings are short-lived, if you turn to alcohol to help mask your anxiety problems, you might find you become more reliant on it to relax as you try to keep the feelings topped up.
On the other hand, it is not uncommon for someone who has become addicted to alcohol to develop symptoms of anxiety.4 Regular alcohol consumption can cause a chemical imbalance within the brain, leaving you more likely to suffer from anxiety problems.
If you drink alcohol, you’re probably familiar with the usual physical symptoms of a hangover, most commonly a headache and feeling nauseous, but hangovers can have psychological symptoms too, in particular feelings of anxiety.
This phenomenon has been coined ‘hanxiety’. Have you ever tried to remember what happened the night before, but can’t, and you might feel embarrassed or regretful but you’re not entirely sure why? This is hanxiety.
A recent study of mixed-confidence participants measured levels of anxiety before, during and after drinking. Those who drank alcohol saw some decrease in anxiety symptoms when drinking, but those who were highly shy tended to have higher levels of anxiety the next day.5 So if you’re already a shy or anxious person, you may be more prone to hanxiety.
How to help your levels of anxiety
If you’re drinking regularly and are concerned about your levels of anxiety, you should consider cutting back on the amount of alcohol you drink.
Once you’ve managed to cut down your alcohol intake, or stopped completely, you should keep up the hard work for a couple of weeks at least and hopefully you will start to see an improvement in your anxiety levels. This is because, during this time, the balance of chemicals in the brain start to return to normal.3
If you’ve reduced your alcohol intake and you’re still experiencing anxious feelings after a few weeks, you should talk to your GP.
If you’re worried you may be dependent on alcohol you can contact an alcohol support service, such as Drinkchat. This is a free service for those looking for information or advice about their alcohol use.
You could track how much you’re drinking on a weekly basis to help spot patterns with your levels of anxiety and alcohol consumption. There are lots of useful online tools to track how much you’re drinking and to help spot patterns so you can avoid triggers – the Drinkaware: Track and calculate units app or MyDrinkaware online tracker can help.
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