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Does Drinking Really Help You Relax?

does drinking really help you relax alcohol and anxiety

Many people believe that alcohol and anxiety are linked. Feeling like drinking might help you forget about your problems or give you a lift in mood? Find out whether it truly helps with your anxiousness.

Announcing you need a drink when feeling stressed or worn out is usually met with enthusiastic agreement. Many of us take for granted that drinking eases anxiety and helps us relax in social settings or at the end of a hard day. Especially in 2020, alcohol sometimes feels like a necessary vehicle for coping with an uncertain, and often scary world.

But lately, it seems like our entire society might be developing a bit of a drinking problem. When “Rose all Day” is printed on fitness wear, and so-called “Wine Moms” are said to have influenced the recent presidential election, it’s worth looking at whether drinking is doing what we think it’s doing. Does alcohol really “take the edge off” our stressful days, or does it make things worse?

According to a recent study released by the RAND corporation and supported by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), drinking has soared during the pandemic. Heavy drinking for women has increased by 41 percent. “The magnitude of these increases is striking,” Michael Pollard, lead author of the study and a sociologist at RAND, told ABC television. “People’s depression increases, anxiety increases, [and] alcohol use is often a way to cope with these feelings. But depression and anxiety are also the outcomes of drinking; it’s this feedback loop where it just exacerbates the problem that it’s trying to address.”

If you are truly drinking moderately, which the National Institute of Health (NIH) defines as one 5 oz glass of wine or 12 oz beer for women and two for men, and alcohol doesn’t have a noticeable effect on your overall mood or sleep, you are probably staying clear of alcohol’s anxiety-elevating effects. But if you are more than a “one and done” drinker, or are worried that alcohol is affecting your well-being and health, it’s worth looking at how it is affecting you.

Alcohol And The Brain

Alcohol has a “biphasic,” or two-phase, effect on the brain. It both increases dopamine levels (leading to feelings of euphoria) and inhibits excitatory neurotransmitters, which slows down your brain functioning. The slowing down of the excitatory neurotransmitter is how alcohol acts as a depressant. Once dopamine levels go back to normal, we’re still left with a depressed system, which often leads to another drink to get the dopamine levels back up.

The more we drink the less effect alcohol has on our dopamine receptors, but by then our brain has learned to crave alcohol when we’re stressed. This interference with our neurotransmitters can increase anxiety, often for the entire day after drinking. This can lead to wanting a drink the next evening to wind down, causing the entire cycle to start over again. Very often cutting out alcohol can lead to a significant decrease in your overall anxiety.

Alcohol and Anxiety
Does Drinking Really Help You Relax?

Alcohol And Your Sleep

While the sedative effect of alcohol initially might help us fall asleep, as little as one drink too close to bedtime can wreak havoc on both the quality and quantity of your sleep. Alcohol interferes with our sleep stages, especially REM sleep, the restorative part of our sleep cycle. When alcohol finally leaves your bloodstream, you’re often jolted awake as your nervous system, coming off of several hours in a depressed state, tries to achieve homeostasis by lurching into active mode.

Sleep is the ultimate self-care activity. The importance of quality sleep in all mental health issues, and overall well-being, cannot be overstated. It is the first line of defense against chronic anxiety and depression.

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Tonya Lester

Tonya Lester, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Brooklyn, NY. She graduated from New York University with a Master's degree in Social Work. Her post-graduate training includes a fellowship at Psychoanalytic Theory at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Theory and Research (IPTAR) and supervised practice in Psychodynamic Therapy under Drs. C.E. Robins and John Broughton. She completed training in IFS with Dick Schwartz, Nancy Sowell, and Pam Krause. Her training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was with John Forsyth, Ph.D. She studied RLT with its creator, Terry Real. Additional writing and resources, such as journal prompt and values work, are available at www.tonyalester.com.View Author posts