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October 17, 2018

The Connection Between Alcohol and Anxiety

paper silhouette of man’s head with scrambled lines in the brainAlcohol is a wildly popular recreational drug. Classified as a depressant and legal for purchase and consumption in America by those over the age of 21, alcohol is socially prevalent, highly addictive and increasingly costly in terms of its total economic burden to society and unparalleled threat to human life. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 38 million people binge drink at least four times per month, with approximately 6 dying daily from alcohol-poisoning. The prevalence of cognitive deficits and physical impairments associated with alcoholism is undisputed. Driving under the influence (DUI) charges and alcohol-related crashes cost American’s billions annually, and the permanent criminal records that result from both have debilitating social, medical and professional consequences.

Although alcohol abuse often begins with the benign intent of reducing anxiety, suppressing trauma, or simply fitting in socially and enjoying a “buzz” at the annual office Christmas party or frat house initiation, its toxic effects quickly override whatever short-term benefits and pleasures it offers. For many users, alcohol is quite literally a liquid coping mechanism, a relatively inexpensive “fix” that takes the edge off internal and external pressures— or so it appears. Despite a billion-dollar advertising industry that hides the truth about alcohol behind a slew of sexy images, glittery packaging and market-savvy names—alcohol is a killer—a legal poison that has literally claimed more human lives than certain wars.  

UNDERSTANDING ANXIETY

America is an anxiety-ridden nation: fast-paced, digitally intoxicated, fiercely individualistic and socially extroverted when compared to other cultures, with the prevalence of anxiety rapidly increasing. In a recent study published in the Journal of Addictive Behaviors, of 39 outpatients suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD), approximately half also met the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Even more revealing, in 67 percent of cases involving both anxiety use disorder (AUD) and generalized anxiety use disorder (GAD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) occurred prior to alcohol use disorder (AUD)—establishing a clear causal relationship. Research also implicates the co-occurrence of panic disorder, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a variety of other anxiety and depression-related disorders in the development and perpetuation of alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may include the following:

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Chronic restlessness
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Insomnia
  • Irrational fears

Although there is an undeniable genetic link involved in many cases of AUD, even people with no known genetic proclivity or history of prior use can become ensnared in the vicious alcohol-anxiety circle. Anxiety is considered a normal part of human life. For many people, anxiety is triggered by social situations where the potential for embarrassment or rejection is high. It also frequently arises due to marital discord, relationship difficulties, professional pressures and unresolved emotions or trauma. Medical conditions, social isolation, legal problems and financial hardship are also equally common anxiety triggers. Despite the exact cause or causes, one fact remains certain: when hit with accumulating stressors, otherwise happy, functional, socially adept people can fall victim to alcoholism.

THE ALCOHOL-ANXIETY CIRCLE

Although alcohol is frequently used to anesthetize pain and self-medicate, doing so sets into motion a self-perpetuating circle that requires increasing amounts to achieve the same “buzz” as the body begins developing tolerance. Alcohol’s depressant effect is physiologically and psychologically destructive, hijacking healthy brain chemistry and resulting in depleted serotonin levels and a progressively diminished quality of life. Each Budweiser, mojito, margarita or chardonnay adds fuel to the anxiety-based fire, searing neural pathways, destroying necessary nutrients, and turning concentration to ash.

Once an individual begins experiencing the cumulative effects of their alcoholism, whatever anxieties were temporarily extinguished by their drinking are reignited. In fact, aware that they are falling into a dysfunctional cycle, spending excessive money to sustain their unhealthy habit, and taking unnecessary risks, they are besieged by even greater anxiety. At this point, people may resort to binge drinking in isolation, incurring dangerous blood alcohol levels (BALs) in order to forget about their troubles, a form of intoxication that never achieves its intended effect. More commonly, it results in emergency room (ER) visits, deadly car accidents, violent confrontations, cirrhosis of the liver, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (wet brain), and suicide.    

SEEKING HELP

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol addiction, call a substance use professional today. Never delay the process. Alcohol is not just a recreational beverage. It is a toxic, potentially lethal drug, and time is a luxury you just cannot afford!        

For more about alcohol addiction and recovery, check out these articles:

Sources:

International Journal of Medicine (QJM). Depression and Alcoholism. April, 2004.

The International Journal of Drug Policy. Overview of harm reduction treatments for alcohol problems. July, 2006.

European Journal of Internal Medicine. Acute alcohol intoxication. Dec, 2008.

American Journal of Preventative Medicine (AJPM). Economic Costs of Alcohol Consumption in the U.S. Nov, 2011.

Clinical Psychology Review. The relationship between anxiety disorders and alcohol use disorders: A review of major perspectives and findings. March, 2000.

The Journal of the European Psychiatry Association. Prevalence of problematic alcohol consumption in patients with anxiety or depressive disorders. March, 2016

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