The Connection Between Alcohol Use and Anxiety

woman with anxiety sitting at a table with a drink

Alcohol is commonly used as a coping strategy for situations that are uncomfortable or anxiety-inducing. Because drinking lowers inhibitions, many people use alcohol to self-medicate for anxiety. Drinking alcohol is extremely common in social situations, and therefore it can be easy for an individual to hide that they are drinking to relieve anxiety.

Having the occasional or even regular drink to manage anxiety can seem like a reasonable way to keep anxiety in check. However, using alcohol as a coping strategy for anxiety can increase the risk of alcohol dependence and the co-occurrence of anxiety and alcohol disorders. Learning about the connection between anxiety and alcohol use can help to promote safe use and appropriate treatment for anxiety.

Ways Anxiety Can Cause Alcohol Abuse

Anxiety can cause ruminating thoughts, obsessions, and physical feelings like increased heartbeat or lightheadedness. As a depressant, alcohol can slow the body down and reduce some of the physical feelings of anxiety. Alcohol can also alter the way we think and feel and reduce anxious thoughts and feelings.

Because alcohol can reduce the physical and mental aspects of anxiety, there is a risk that alcohol abuse can develop. Using alcohol to manage symptoms can form a reliance or dependence on alcohol to cope with anxiety. Once this association is formed, it can be hard to stop drinking or hard to manage anxiety without alcohol.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Alcohol can be used to manage Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which describes feelings or symptoms of anxiety or panic without any specific or obvious reason. People may use alcohol to help reduce their worry or give them the confidence to participate in their usual activities.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder is the experience of anxiety directly tied to interacting with other people or social events. People with social anxiety usually feel self-conscious or extremely worried about how other people might view them or whether their discomfort is noticeable to other people. Alcohol is very common in social settings and can be used to manage social anxiety symptoms to allow a person to socialize without panic.

Panic Attacks

For people who suffer from panic attacks, alcohol can be used to try to reduce the risk of having one or to lessen its severity. Alcohol affects the central nervous system and can slow heart rate or rate of breathing, which may be triggers for panic attacks in some people.

Why Alcohol Use Increases Anxiety

There are several ways that alcohol use can increase anxiety. From a physiological perspective, alcohol use can cause changes in levels of mood-related chemicals in the brain, which can worsen symptoms of anxiety. Many people also experience an increase in feelings of anxiety the day after drinking, often known as ‘hangover anxiety’.

Alcohol can also induce anxiety by delaying or avoiding dealing with the anxiety itself. For many people, drinking in the moment does not deter the fact that their anxiety returns more intensely later on. This can cause a problematic cycle of drinking to avoid anxiety and feelings of anxiousness because of drinking. Importantly, this cycle can have a serious impact on health and functioning.

Co-occurring anxiety disorders and alcohol abuse can lead to higher rates of disability and poorer health outcomes compared to people with either disorder on its own.

Treatment for Co-Occurring Alcohol Addiction and Anxiety

Alcohol is a very common and socially accepted substance, and it can be difficult to recognize the signs of misuse or addiction. Using alcohol to manage an anxiety disorder can result in a dependence on alcohol, and can be addressed by seeking dual diagnosis treatment.

Anxiety and alcohol treatment includes addressing both alcohol use and addiction as well as the underlying anxiety disorder. Seeking treatment for these co-occurring disorders can help you to stop using alcohol. Treatment also addresses the anxiety factors related to alcohol use. There are different treatment options available to address anxiety and alcohol use:

  • Medical treatment: Medication can be helpful in treating both anxiety and alcoholism. These medications might be used to reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms or to manage anxiety symptoms without the use of alcohol. Talking to your doctor is the best way to find out whether medication is the right option for you.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be used in combination with medication, or as an alternative to medication. CBT involves recognizing unhelpful thoughts related to anxiety and alcohol and developing new thoughts and strategies to cope with anxiety and addiction.

If you or someone you love is suffering from an alcohol addiction related to anxiety, The Recovery Village Ridgefield can help. Contact The Recovery Village Ridgefield today to discuss treatment options available to you.

Morris, Eric, et al. “The relationship between social anxiety disorder and alcohol use disorders: A critical review.” Clinical Psychology Review, 2005. Accessed August 29, 2019.

Alegría, Analucía A et al. “Comorbidity of generalized anxiety disorder and substance use disorders: results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.” The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, September 2010. Accessed August 29, 2019.

Smith, Joshua P, and Sarah W Book. “Comorbidity of generalized anxiety disorder and alcohol use disorders among individuals seeking outpatient substance abuse treatment.” Addictive Behaviors, January 2010. Accessed August 29, 2019.

McKinney, Adele., Coyle, Kieran. “Hangover effects on measures of affect the morning after a normal night’s drinking.” Alcohol and Alcoholism, January/February 2006. Accessed August 29, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village 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.