How does alcohol affect mental health?
Mental health is the theme for this year’s Alcohol Awareness Week (November 16 - 22). It's important because while many people think alcohol has a positive effect on your mood, it can actually cause problems for your mental health.
It’s a theme that has never been more relevant. This year has taken its toll on the country’s mental health. A survey by the charity Mind  found that more than half of adults (60%) and about two-thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health got worse during the last lockdown.
Our research found similar results. During the first lockdown, many drinkers turned to alcohol to relieve worry or uncertainty, or just to alleviate boredom. And those whose mental health was negatively impacted were drinking more than those whose mental health was not impacted.
And there’s evidence to show that the current lockdown is having an impact on our mental health too.
This week the BBC reported that “the week after the clocks went back saw Britain's highest levels of loneliness since the pandemic began, according to Office for National Statistics figures. The start of November, with darker evenings, had 4.2 million adults always or often lonely, compared with 2.6 million before the pandemic.”
The effect of alcohol on mental health
So why does this matter and what does alcohol have to do with our mental health?
Although, for some people, alcohol can have a very temporary positive impact on mood, in the long run it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with.
This is because alcohol is a depressant and regularly drinking above the low risk guidelines of 14 units a week disrupts the balance of chemicals in our brain that affect mood. This balance is vital for good mental health.
Drinking heavily and regularly is associated with symptoms of depression, although it can be difficult to separate cause and effect. But studies show that depression can follow on from heavy drinking and that reducing or stopping drinking can improve mood.
To look after our mental health, reducing how much we drink is an important first step.
How to cut down
A good way to cut down is to increase the amount of drink-free days you have each week. Set yourself simple goals, aiming for what you think you can achieve, as this will make it easier to stick with. You can also track your progress to see if you can increase your number of drink-free days over the course of a month – our free app can help with this.
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.
Remember, while having a drink might seem like a good idea to relieve feelings of stress or anxiety, it can have a negative impact on your mental health and make those feelings harder to deal with.
Dr Sarah Jarvis explains the link between alcohol and mental health
To find out more about the effects of alcohol on mental health, watch our video with Dr Sarah Jarvis.