Alcohol and Anxiety: How Alcohol Affects Anxiety

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The belief that alcohol helps anxiety is common. People often use alcohol as a way to cope with anxiety, stress, and tension, believing that alcohol induces relaxation. Turning to a substance such as alcohol to reduce anxiety is known as self-medication. People don’t use alcohol to treat anxiety because they are weak or “bad” but because they are attempting to deal with the awful experience of anxiety by treating themselves.

Once people begin to use alcohol for their anxiety, they often continue to do so. Alcohol, after all, is a sedative, a depressant for the nervous system. It does help people relax and lower their feelings of anxiety, which can take the mind off problems.

Occasional mild- to moderate alcohol use can actually be safe and reasonable. Unfortunately, when people are self-medicating for anxiety, alcohol use can easily escalate to a level at which it does not help anxiety and actually increases it.

When Alcohol Use for Anxiety Becomes Dangerous

Alcohol quickly shifts from helping to harming because, despite its temporary ability to lower anxiety, it isn’t truly an anxiety treatment. Genuine anxiety treatments work with your mind and body to systematically lower anxiety as well as help you cope with it.

Alcohol, on the other hand, temporarily masks symptoms of anxiety. Then the alcohol leaves your system and the effects wear off. When your blood alcohol content (BAC) drops, you crash. Anxiety returns in full force or even worse than it was before alcohol entered your system.

Anxiety and Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol use for anxiety becomes dangerous when drinking goes beyond moderate. Moderate alcohol use is frequently defined as two drinks per day for adult men and one drink per day for adult women (Cherney & Jewell, 2016). This is a very general guideline, as people are unique. Alcohol affects everyone differently.

When people use alcohol for anxiety and stress management, the initial experience of relaxation stops occurring because the body becomes tolerant of the level of alcohol consumed. A greater amount of alcohol is needed for anxiety reduction. Not only are higher and higher quantities of alcohol needed to feel better, when the alcohol exits the bloodstream, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage anxiety. People become reliant on alcohol to help with anxiety, but their anxiety grows because of it. The cycle continues and can easily spiral out of control.

Alcohol also becomes dangerous when prescription anxiety medication is involved. Serious side effects, some of which may be life-threatening, can occur when alcohol mixes with the chemicals in pharmaceuticals. It’s extremely important to be honest with your doctor if you are using both anxiety medication and alcohol.

Does Alcohol Cause Anxiety?

Alcohol’s help for anxiety is small and temporary. It doesn’t help anxiety in a satisfactory way, but does alcohol cause anxiety? Yes, it can. It can also exacerbate existing anxiety and make it much more difficult to manage.

The relationship between anxiety and alcohol has become increasingly clear thanks to research (Clark, 2006). We know with certainty that alcohol affects anxiety negatively.

  • Alcohol increases existing symptoms of anxiety.
  • Alcohol increases or causes anxiety during the period of time when it is used as well as during times of withdrawal.
  • When alcohol takes over once tolerance develops, it creates more anxiety, and that increased anxiety is stronger and harder to manage.
  • As BAC drops, anxiety returns with a vengeance and can be long-lasting.
  • Alcohol changes the levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin in the brain.

Moderate alcohol use has been proven to worsen existing anxiety. When moderate use becomes heavy drinking, it can cause new anxiety. Either way, anxiety is a side effect of alcohol (Cherney & Jewell, 2016).

How Heavy Alcohol Use Causes Anxiety

Describing an extensive study he and colleagues engaged in, Dr. Thomas Kash (2012) explains that heavy alcohol use causes anxiety because it disrupts functioning at the molecular level. Alcohol can cause anxiety because it damages the brain. Says Kash, heavy alcohol use can

  • change the shape of nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex,
  • suppress nerve receptors,
  • disrupt specific brain circuits such as those implicated in anxiety, and
  • interfere in the way “our cognitive brain centers control our emotional brain centers,” making emotions and experiences like anxiety dominate over rational thought processes.

Alcohol and anxiety are a harmful, even dangerous, combination. Alcohol affects anxiety by increasing it as well as causing it. Heavy alcohol use damages and disrupts the functioning of the brain and directly causes and increases anxiety.

While it can be genuinely tempting to use alcohol to help anxiety, alcohol isn’t a safe or effective anxiety treatment. Occasional moderate use can start out innocently, but beware the tolerance that develops and the increasing need for alcohol. Other treatments such as anxiety self-help, therapy, and medication will be much more successful in the long run.

article references

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, December 21). Alcohol and Anxiety: How Alcohol Affects Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 22 from

Last Updated: January 6, 2022

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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