Connecting Alcohol Use with Anxiety

Woman with an anxiety disorder and alcohol addiction experiences negative effects

The connection between alcohol and anxiety works both ways: Alcohol use can increase or create symptoms of anxiety, and anxiety can lead to increased use of alcohol. Because of the unique relationship between the two, people who have anxiety should be aware of the effects that alcohol can have on increasing their anxiety and how their anxiety may put them at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder.

How Anxiety Causes Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Anxiety is an unpleasant sensation of fear or apprehension about a potentially negative event. Anxiety is necessary and helpful in some situations, such as helping you to focus during a job interview or be more aware of how you are perceived during a date. When anxiety starts to interfere with normal activities of life or be experienced on a more frequent basis it can become a problem. Some types of anxiety may indicate an underlying problem and there are anxiety disorders that can affect regular living. These include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder – Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent worries that affects multiple aspects of life. The persistent worry will likely include worrying about factors that other people would not think are reasonable to worry about.
  • Social anxiety disorder – Social anxiety disorder is characterized by an unreasonable and paralyzing fear of interacting with others. As many as 20% of people with social anxiety disorder use alcohol.
  • Panic Attacks – Panic attacks are episodes of uncontrollable fear and panic that seemingly occur for no reason and resolve on their own. Someone who has a pattern of panic attacks may have an underlying panic disorder.

Because the effects of anxiety, especially for those with an anxiety disorder, can be so debilitating, people who have anxiety may find themselves drinking alcohol to relieve anxiety. Self-medicating anxiety with alcohol can be dangerous, as alcohol only provides temporary relief from anxiety and may actually worsen the effects of anxiety over time. The use of alcohol to treat anxiety can also lead to alcohol abuse and may lead to a situation where someone becomes addicted to alcohol, not for the physical effects it causes, but for the psychological relief that it provides.

RELATED: Alcohol Use While on Antidepressants

Why Alcohol Use Increases Anxiety

People who have anxiety from using alcohol often wonder why alcohol use causes anxiety. While alcohol may provide some short-term relief from anxiety, it actually rewires your brain, causing changes in chemicals and connections that lead to increased levels of anxiety. Because this physically changes the brain, the long-term effects of alcohol-induced anxiety will last for a long time, even once alcohol use stops, and may require treatment or medications to reverse. Alcohol may also cause anxiety when withdrawal from alcohol occurs. One of the main symptoms of alcohol withdrawal that is prominent throughout an alcohol detox is anxiety. Someone who drinks and tries to stop drinking on their own may experience frequent episodes of anxiety as they stop using alcohol. This may cause them to resume alcohol use to treat this anxiety.

Treatment for Co-Occurring Alcohol Addiction and Anxiety Disorder

Someone who has a mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder, and a substance use disorder like alcoholism may require special treatment when trying to stop substance use. This combination of mental health and substance addiction is called a co-occurring disorder, or dual diagnosis, and makes treatment more complex. Treatment for co-occurring disorders involves treating the mental health condition and the substance use disorder simultaneously. This requires highly-trained experts who have advanced knowledge beyond a basic rehab or mental health education.

Medical Treatment

Medical treatment for someone who has anxiety and an alcohol use disorder is focused on treating the symptoms of anxiety. The medications used to treat anxiety will change between the medicines used during detox and the medications used after detox. The best medications for anxiety are benzodiazepines and these should not typically be used while the blood alcohol is high.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective type of therapy that focuses on learning and modifying the internal thoughts and beliefs that control our behaviors. CBT can help to reduce the cravings to use alcohol and help to change alcohol use behaviors. CBT can also help in understanding the internal thoughts that lead to anxiety and provide strategies for overcoming anxiety.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Dual diagnosis treatment requires specialized knowledge and treatments that involve a combination of medications and therapies. Dual diagnosis care is more likely to require inpatient treatment and will also involve a thorough follow-up plan.

Contact The Recovery Village Columbus to speak with a representative about how professional treatment can help you address alcohol use. Take the first step toward a healthier future, call today.

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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village Columbus aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.