Guest blog: How to manage your mental health without alcohol
Girl & Tonic’s Laurie McAllister discusses the impact of alcohol on her mental health and finding new coping strategies.
When I decided to stop drinking, there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the effects of alcohol but one thing I did know is that drinking regularly was making my mental health worse. I didn’t know this because of anything I had read, or because anyone had told me. It was through my own experience of waking up on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday morning feeling terrible – and dealing with the effects of a hangover for days after.
I’ve written before about my decision to stop drinking. My mental health hadn’t been great for a couple of years previously – I’d been struggling on and off with low mood and anxiety. I’d started journaling as a way to figure it all out and begun to implement new strategies to create good mental health. But it felt like one step forward, two steps back. I’d make progress with improving my life and mental health, and then feel like I was back to square one the morning-after-the-night-before. The realisation that my drinking was enabling my depression and disabling the work I was doing on myself forced me to begin to question it, and ultimately was one of the main reasons I stopped drinking.
Depression and alcohol
In my experience, alcohol mixed with depression and anxiety felt like a chicken and egg situation. Was I struggling because I was drinking, or was I drinking because I was struggling? The reading I’ve done since stopping drinking shows that both can be true. Regularly drinking alcohol can make depression more likely, and people with depression may be at more risk of developing problems with alcohol, especially if they drink to relieve their depression1.
Since stopping drinking at the end of 2016, I have determined that alcohol was probably not the root cause of my depression or anxiety – as I can still experience both now - but it wasn’t helping. Research shows that people can experience feeling depressed after drinking, and this was true for me.
My depression was intensified by alcohol. I’d use alcohol as a way to cope with my low mood, only to find that when the alcohol wore off – my mood was lower than before I started drinking. The same was true with drinking to cope with anxiety, I’d drink to ease the anxious feelings – only to feel more anxious the following day. Regular hangovers created an unpleasant cycle in my life: the morning after the night before I’d feel low, unwell, anxious, and sometimes quite a lot of shame.
Five years later, it’s quite common to hear people talk about the negative equation that can be alcohol and good mental health. I’ve met hundreds of people who have stopped (or want to stop drinking) over the years, and more often than not the reason they pick for wanting to live an alcohol-free life is because they feel that alcohol (or the after-effects of drinking alcohol) is making them feel anxious or depressed.
No more hangovers
Hangxiety, or hangover anxiety, whilst not yet included in the Oxford English Dictionary, is experienced by lots of people. Anxiety is a common hangover symptom, whether or not you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder. Experiencing increased anxiety, the morning after the night before is something you might be familiar with – or perhaps you haven’t put two and two together yet. It wasn’t until I stopped drinking completely that I realised how anxious my hangovers had made me feel. Without the hangover, my mornings are much more manageable.
Before I stopped drinking, I didn’t know much about how alcohol acts as a drug – or how it can contribute to poor physical or mental health. Long story short, alcohol is a depressant and alters the balance of chemicals in your brain from the first drink. The brain relies on a delicate balance of chemicals and processes, but alcohol can disrupt that, affecting your thoughts, feelings, and actions – and often your long-term mental health.
When I started trying to stop drinking, I realised just how much I had been using alcohol to self-medicate my depression and anxiety. When I had a bad day, or when I was feeling nervous, anxious, low, or stressed I’d reach for a glass of wine, a prosecco or gin and tonic. It didn’t help. It left me more depressed and more anxious, unable to put my energy into strategies that would help me get better. Alcohol was not a healthy coping mechanism for me, I had to find other ways to manage my mental health.
Finding healthier coping mechanisms
It’s been shown that reducing or stopping drinking can improve your mood – and it certainly did for me. If you are looking to improve your mental health, taking a break (three months if you can) or quitting drinking, is one of the best things you can do to find stable mental ground.
Although, I don’t want to sugar-coat reality. The truth is, there are also times when nothing may relieve your mental health struggles in the short-term and quick fixes are hard to come by. But we can make choices that are not harmful to us. Sleeping is not harmful, eating well does not harm you, and talking to a friend or therapist doesn’t either. When I’m feeling low, I try to choose options that are not harmful, and I choose to manage my mental health without alcohol.
I have found many ways to take care of my mental health while staying sober. These include yoga, writing (usually a stream of consciousness in a notebook), sleep, therapy, eating regular nutritious meals, and as many walks outside as I can motivate myself to do and – perhaps most importantly - by asking for help when I need it.
There is no shame in asking for help. Telling the truth about how you are feeling takes strength. If you are struggling, get outside support. This could include friends, family, a therapist and/or your doctor and can be key to getting better. If you feel unable to talk to those close by, there are lots of support lines and groups you can reach out to.
I do all of the above and more to maintain my mental health. What I don’t do anymore is manage my bad mental health days with wine. I know now that alcohol is not the answer.
Find out more
1. The link between alcohol and depression. Available at: www.wearewithyou.org.uk/help-and-advice/advice-you/link-between-alcohol-and-depression/ [Accessed 9/5/22]
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