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The Relationship Between Alcohol and Anxiety

The Relationship Between Alcohol and Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are different from the day-to-day anxiety everyone experiences in stressful situations. For people with anxiety disorders, daily life can seem physically and emotionally overwhelming, and they may turn to alcohol to cope. If you or someone you love has a substance use disorder, an alcohol and anxiety treatment program can address both concerns to improve overall health and well-being.

What Are the Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders?

People with anxiety disorders may feel overwhelmed and worried much of the time, enough that it disrupts their daily lives. They endure debilitating physical and mental symptoms when faced with stress, like:

  • Rapid heart rates
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle tension
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Fatigue

Each individual’s symptoms may be different, but there are several distinct types of anxiety disorders, and many people fall into these categories. Some of the most common include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic, excessive worry that makes it difficult to function in everyday situations. A person’s fears may have little basis in reality but still be persistent and extreme.
  • Panic Disorder is characterized by repeated panic attacks with symptoms like chest pain, heart palpitations, trouble breathing, and a perceived loss of control. Panic attacks can feel life-threatening, almost like heart attacks.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is characterized by an intense fear of social situations. This fear goes beyond nervousness and can include debilitating physical symptoms.

How Alcohol and Anxiety Can Interact

Combining alcohol and anxiety is unfortunately common. People with SAD, for instance, may drink heavily in social settings to cope with their fear. People with generalized anxiety, who feel anxious constantly, may reach for alcohol to calm their emotions on a regular basis. About 20% of people diagnosed with anxiety disorders report using alcohol to deal with their stress.

Drinking to handle anxiety can lead to alcohol use disorder, where an individual drinks compulsively and has trouble controlling their alcohol use.

The reverse is also true—someone with alcohol use disorder has an increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder due to excessive drinking. If they already have an anxiety disorder, alcohol can make anxiety worse.

Over time, constant drinking can rewire the brain and cause dependence, where a person requires a certain amount of alcohol to function. Alcohol affects the amygdala, the area of the brain that regulates emotions. This means alcohol abuse can harm a person’s ability to control their emotions, making existing anxiety symptoms even more difficult to handle.

Alcohol can temporarily soothe anxiety symptoms; that’s one reason why alcohol and anxiety are so often connected. Drinking releases a chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which has a calming effect. However, when a person stops drinking, the calm disappears, and they may experience withdrawal symptoms that increase tension and panic. This phenomenon is so common it’s known as “hangxiety” or the uncomfortable feeling people get after drinking when the positive feelings released by GABA have disappeared. This effect may be even more disruptive than the person’s ordinary anxiety.

Ultimately, alcohol use doesn’t treat the underlying stressors that can affect anxiety. Instead, it causes more problems than it solves.

Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment for Alcohol and Anxiety

A co-occurring disorder treatment or “dual diagnosis” program addresses an individual’s substance abuse by treating the underlying cause—often, the cause is a mental health condition like anxiety disorder. Similarly, if anxiety results from alcohol consumption, co-occurring disorder treatment can help restore health and wholeness.

This integrated form of treatment for alcohol and anxiety includes multiple treatment techniques, like medication, therapy, and peer support groups. People may be surprised by how much more grounded and in control they feel after alcohol is out of the picture.

Medication is a common part of co-occurring disorder treatment. Antidepressants, for instance, can relieve symptoms of generalized or social anxiety disorder.

Therapy techniques like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) teach clients to change their thinking and behavior patterns and discover healthier ways to cope with anxiety. Through individual and group counseling, many people with anxiety disorders learn to successfully manage their emotions without alcohol.

Start Your Path to Healing at Greater Boston Addiction Centers

Our co-occurring disorder treatment program helps clients with anxiety and substance use disorders achieve lasting recovery from both conditions. With evidence-based therapy, compassionate medical professionals, and treatment plans tailored to each client’s individual needs, Greater Boston Addiction Centers are in the business of changing lives for the better.

Intensive daytime and evening outpatient programs work around clients’ schedules and provide a variety of counseling techniques, including CBT. You can recover from alcohol addiction while managing an anxiety disorder and achieve lasting sobriety and satisfaction. Contact us at 877.920.6583 to find out more.