Regular, heavy drinking interferes with chemicals in the brain that are vital for good mental health. So while we might feel relaxed after a drink, in the long run alcohol can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety, and make stress harder to deal with.
The brain relies on a delicate balance of chemicals and processes. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it can disrupt that balance, affecting our thoughts, feelings and actions – and sometimes our long-term mental health. This is partly down to neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that help to transmit signals from one nerve (or neuron) in the brain to another.
For example, the relaxed feeling we can experience if we have a drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol has caused in the brain. A drink can make some people feel more confident and less anxious, as the alcohol begins to suppress the part of the brain associated with inhibition.
As we drink more, the impact on the brain increases. And regardless of the mood we’re in, with increasing alcohol consumption, it’s possible that negative emotions will take over. Alcohol can be linked to aggression and some people report becoming angry, aggressive, anxious or depressed when they drink.
For someone experiencing anxiety, a drink might help them feel more at ease, but this feeling is short-lived. The so-called ‘relaxed’ feeling somebody may say they experience after having a drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol causes in the brain. But these effects wear off fast. Relying on alcohol to mask anxiety could also lead to a greater reliance on it to relax. A likely side-effect of this is the build up of tolerance to alcohol. Over time you will need to drink more alcohol to get the same feeling. And, in the medium to longer term, this pattern often leads to alcohol dependence.
Feelings of anxiety can happen with a hangover, too. As we process alcohol, we can begin to experience psychological symptoms, such as feeling depressed, anxious or agitated. For some, these feelings are barely noticeable. But if anxiety is already an issue, the hangover effect can make those symptoms worse.
Drinking alcohol can also make a person feel more anxious in certain situations. When we drink, we don’t always respond to all the cues around us. If we’re prone to anxiety and notice something that could be interpreted as threatening in the environment, there is a tendency to focus on that and miss the other less threatening - or neutral - information.
To reduce stress or anxiety without alcohol, try exercise or relaxation methods, such as meditation or yoga. Or try breathing techniques when you feel worried or anxious. Talking to somebody you know about how you’re feeling is also a positive thing to do.