It’s happy hour. A few people from the office are sitting together with beer in hand, in effort to “kick back and relax.” If asked why they engage in this ritual, they may reply to “unwind” or “socialize” or “calm nerves.”
But just as alcohol doesn’t make you more social, it technically doesn’t relax you, either. Not in the big scheme of things. Effects are temporary, and meet a very narrow threshold of actual stress relief.
It is true that alcohol is a depressant, which works on the central nervous system. Initially, alcohol in certain amounts can seem to do all these things. In the beginning, alcohol may function like anti-anxiety medication, and its effect on the brain is not dissimilar to benzodiazepines. At this stage, alcohol and anxiety are battling it out, and alcohol is winning.
But also like benzodiazepines, our brain and body eventually begin to build a tolerance. The stress-relieving effects of alcohol lessen. At this point, we’ve lost a coping mechanism, which merely makes matters worse in the long run when it comes to dealing with stress. And heavy drinking no longer relaxes the nervous system – it excites it. Now the battle in the battle of alcohol and anxiety, the latter is starting to make a comeback. So as for calming nerves, alcohol is not very good at that, either.
While present, alcohol alters serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for feeling good. When the alcohol wears off, stress and anxiety can bounce back with a vengeance, leaving the drinker with a mood worse than before.
Social anxiety disorder is a common disorder that affects about 7% of the U.S. population. This disorder can most simply be described as a fear of being in public or socializing with other people. Alcohol lowers inhibitions, so someone with this disorder may mistakenly believe this is a good way to self-medicate. But they’d be wrong. Up to 20% of persons with social anxiety disorder also present with some level of alcohol dependence.
Heavy drinking can also lead to increased or irregular heart rate, as well as a host of gastrointestinal-related issues, all of which can contribute to additional anxiety and panic attacks. As someone who is recovering from alcoholism, I can tell you from personal experience that these attacks can be really, really, bad.
Then comes the hangover – headaches, nausea, drowsiness, dehydration, and you guessed it – anxiety. Did you call in sick to work today? Do you generally feel bad because you drank too much? Did you behave badly? If you are particularly obnoxious or stupefied while drinking, you aren’t likely to win any favors socially.
Of course, the effects from the night before continue into the morning – and usually not in a good way. The guilt and shame over binging or engaging in embarrassing behavior contributes to anxiety on a one-to-one basis; that is, every time you drink too much, this effect is likely to happen.
And finally, if you have a hangover, you are probably going through some form of withdrawal. This period may last a day or two for isolated binge drinking, but can last for days when someone is coming off a bender or prolonged period of heavy drinking. Symptoms of withdrawal may include tremors, anxiety. nausea and/or vomiting, headache, increased heart rate, sweating, irritability, confusion, and insomnia. Alcohol and anxiety are no longer sparring – alcohol may win battles, but anxiety wins the war.
If you suspect you or someone you know is an alcoholic, please seek help immediately.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology