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Alcohol and Anxiety: What You Need to Know

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Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 6/16/2022

When it comes to alcohol and anxiety, alcohol can provide relief for anxiety symptoms in the short term. While alcohol can provide relief, once blood alcohol concentration (BAC) returns to normal, symptoms of anxiety can come back. This can create a cycle of alcohol abuse as a means of treating anxiety disorders. When alcohol is used this way it leads to addiction, worse symptoms of anxiety, and other mental health problems like depression. 

Alcohol abuse and anxiety disorders can also occur at the same time. When consuming alcohol over long periods, the risk of developing an anxiety disorder also increases. In fact, late-stage cases of alcoholism commonly have symptoms of anxiety and paranoia. Alcohol can also negatively impact and alter someone’s mood, which can lead to worse symptoms of anxiety. Furthermore, alcohol can interact with anxiety medications like Xanax to create co-occurring disorders.

Learning alcohol interacts with anxiety medications and anxiety can help you make smarter choices surrounding alcohol.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is excessive worrying about situations that can lead to changes in heart rate, sweating, and general discomfort. While anxiety is normal for stressful situations, anxiety becomes a disorder when it impacts daily life. Anxiety disorders can consume someone’s life and lead to worrying throughout the day. An anxiety disorder can also lead to someone developing depression, insomnia, and other mental health disorders.

Anxiety can also be the byproduct of alcohol or drug abuse. Because alcohol causes changes to receptors in the brain that create balance, when someone stops drinking anxiety can occur. In fact, many people experience anxiety during alcohol and drug withdrawal.

One thing to note is that anxiety can be the result of trauma and other experiences. For example, someone who goes through a breakup with a significant other can experience separation anxiety for a prolonged period. In cases like this, the anxiety disorders can be resolved with a combination of time and therapy (if needed). Severe trauma can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can cause intense panic attacks when triggered by events. A simplified example is a soldier returning home from war-time who hears a loud bang at the grocery store. An event that can lead to a panic attack caused by PTSD.

Anxiety disorders can also require lifelong treatment or therapy. Furthermore, anxiety can be treated with medications like Xanax. These medications can be prescribed daily or when needed. Mixing alcohol with anxiety medications like Xanax can lead to several problems and make the medication less effective.

Some people may also turn to alcohol as a means to treat anxiety. In these cases, there’s a high chance of alcohol dependency developing.

What are the Types of Anxiety?

Anxiety can present itself in many ways. Some anxiety disorders can remain with some for life but other anxiety disorders resolve after stressful situations come to an end. There are also anxiety-related conditions that can lead to substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. Ultimately, it depends on the individual because anxiety disorders can be unique and challenging to manage.

Below are some of the common types of anxiety.

  • Anxiety during stressful situations
  • Panic disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Unique phobias (fear of spiders, for example)
  • Social anxiety 
  • General anxiety 

Anxiety is a condition that impacts individuals in unique ways. Therefore, anxiety can vary based on individual experiences and trauma.

What are the Negative Effects of Alcohol on Anxiety?

Alcohol causes chemical changes in the brain and can impact neurotransmitters. When this occurs, levels of dopamine and serotonin can become affected. Changes to these parts of the brain can lead to chemical imbalances that increase the risk of anxiety or make anxiety worse. For this reason, people can feel more anxious after binge drinking or abusing alcohol. Long-term alcohol abuse can also cause this problem to develop.

Below are the negative effects of alcohol on anxiety.

  • Increased risk of alcohol dependency 
  • Worse symptoms of anxiety 
  • Depleted levels of serotonin in the brain 
  • Increased risk of a panic attack 
  • Increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder
  • Decreased effectiveness of anxiety medications 

People who use alcohol as a method of anxiety treatment can also develop a co-occurring disorder.

What is the Relationship Between Alcohol and Anxiety?

More research is being done each year on alcohol’s relationship with anxiety. Based on current data, there’s a correlation between alcohol abuse and increased levels of anxiety. Alcohol increases the risk of developing anxiety and makes symptoms of anxiety worse over time. Even in the short term, alcohol can increase the risk of anxiety symptoms becoming worse. Because of alcohol’s intoxicating effects, many people also turn to alcohol as a method of coping with anxiety symptoms. In these cases, alcohol addiction becomes a problem that leads to increased anxiety and other mental health disorders.

Alcohol is also known for increasing anxiety when people go through withdrawal. Withdrawal from alcohol occurs when someone quits drinking. The onset of withdrawal symptoms can begin in as little as 12 hours and anxiety is one of the most common symptoms during detoxification. Anxiety treatments can also be less effective when consuming alcohol. While a few standard drinks are unlikely to cause problems, consuming large quantities of alcohol can make anxiety medications like Xanax less effective. Furthermore, abusing alcohol for many years can render anxiety medications useless. 

How Can Alcohol Increase Anxiety?

Alcohol can increase anxiety because it causes changes to neurotransmitters in the brain. When changes to the brain happen chemicals in the brain become unbalanced. This imbalance can result in anxiety or worse symptoms of anxiety for people who have anxiety disorders. Alcohol can also result in anxiety because of how it interacts with mood. When consumed in large quantities alcohol can raise BAC rapidly and when BAC begins returning to normal symptoms of anxiety can occur.

Alcohol can also increase anxiety in other ways. Long-term alcohol addiction can make the brain dependent on alcohol, which leads to alcohol withdrawal. One of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is increased anxiety, which can last for between 3 and 6 weeks. Other changes in mood that result from quitting drinking can also increase the risk of anxiety and lead to an onset of anxiety symptoms.

Another way that alcohol increases anxiety is through self-medicating. People who use alcohol as a method of coping with anxiety can experience higher levels of anxiety when alcohol is not being consumed. When alcohol increases anxiety in this way it often creates a cycle of self-medication that increases anxiety.

Individuals with anxiety should avoid self-medicating with alcohol to prevent increases in anxiety.

What is the Best Drink to Prevent Alcohol Anxiety?

Consuming alcoholic beverages can lead to alcohol anxiety regardless of the beverage. Still, some alcoholic drinks have higher alcohol percentages than others. Alcoholic drinks like liquors can raise BAC in the blood rapidly, which can lead to alcohol anxiety. On the other hand, alcoholic drinks with less alcohol like beer and wine have a lower chance of causing alcohol anxiety.

While some alcoholic drinks have a higher chance of causing alcohol anxiety, you should avoid binge drinking any type of alcohol. Binge drinking can lead to an increased risk of alcohol anxiety because of how fast BAC rises. Moreover, consuming any alcoholic drink daily can increase the risk of anxiety because of alcoholism. 

Alcohol withdrawal can also lead to alcohol-induced anxiety and alcohol withdrawal can happen when drinking any type of alcohol. Overall, alcoholic beverages with higher alcohol percentages have a higher chance of causing alcohol-induced anxiety.

Why Do People with Anxiety Drink Alcohol?

People with anxiety drink alcohol for many reasons. Anxiety from trauma can cause people to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism, which increases the risk of self-medication and alcohol addiction.

That said, many people consume alcohol to help with anxiety in social settings. This is because social anxiety can make interaction with others more challenging. However, alcohol is known for making people more social. Consuming alcohol in these situations can temporarily reduce symptoms of social anxiety. While alcohol can be useful for social anxiety in short-term situations, it’s not a reliable treatment modality. 

Additionally, using alcohol to treat social anxiety can increase the risk of alcohol dependency occurring. Alcoholism can make anxiety worse and create a cycle where alcohol is required to function normally.

How Long After Quitting Drinking Does Anxiety Go Away?

After quitting drinking anxiety goes away in a few weeks or months. Quitting alcohol can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, especially if someone has alcohol abuse disorder (AUD). While quitting alcohol can help with symptoms of anxiety, it can also cause people to enter the alcohol withdrawal period if alcohol was abused for many months or years.

During alcohol withdrawal, the first few weeks can cause changes to a person’s mood. These changes can result in increased anxiety and paranoia. After about 3 to 6 weeks most people will return to their pre-alcoholic anxiety levels. Depending on the individual, this can result in no anxiety or fewer symptoms of anxiety.

What is the Treatment for Alcoholism and Anxiety?

The treatment for alcohol and anxiety is therapy and detoxification. Treating alcoholism varies based on the needs of the patient and the same is true for anxiety disorders. When alcohol and anxiety are co-occurring disorders, treatment for alcohol and anxiety can happen at the same time. For co-occurring cases, treatment for alcohol and anxiety is typically a combination of therapy and detoxification (depending on the severity of alcohol addiction).

Alcohol and anxiety can also be treated separately. When treating alcoholism people can enter into inpatient programs, outpatient counseling, sober living homes, and detox clinics. For anxiety, a combination of therapy and medication is often used. Alcoholism can also be treated with medications like Naltrexone.

While these are some of the treatment options for alcohol and anxiety, each case depends on the individual. No two treatments are ever the same.

Will Quitting Drinking Reduce Anxiety?

If anxiety develops after abusing alcohol, quitting drinking will reduce anxiety. Alcohol consumption can also make pre-existing anxiety disorders worse. In these cases, quitting alcohol can reduce the severity of anxiety. Because of the way alcohol interacts with anxiety medications, quitting drinking can also make treatments for anxiety more effective.

Ultimately, alcohol abuse correlates to worse anxiety. Abusing alcohol can also lead to other mental health problems. Quitting drinking can help with many problems like anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. 

Still, anxiety can return in social settings without alcohol. In these cases, it’s best to find an alternative treatment for anxiety. Some good examples include an emotional support animal (ESA) or anxiety medications.

Overall, people who quit drinking are better off in the long term compared to people who continue to abuse alcohol.