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The Relationship Between Anxiety and Alcoholism

Oftentimes, people drink a glass of wine or have a beer after a stressful day. While this can be normal behavior, drinking alcohol to soothe symptoms of stress or anxiety can lead an individual down a slippery slope. 

Self-medication through the use of alcohol is one of the leading causes of alcoholism and alcohol use disorder. Individuals who use alcohol as a means to cope with anxiety are at an increased risk of developing comorbid anxiety and alcohol addiction. 

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “About 20 percent of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression have an alcohol or other substance use disorder.”[1]

What is Anxiety?

Everyone experiences occasional anxiety at some point in their life. However, some people experience intense, persistent, and excessive worry or fear about everyday situations. This type of anxiety indicates that an individual is suffering from an anxiety disorder. 

There are many different types of anxiety disorders, from social anxiety to separation anxiety and even substance-induced anxiety disorder. The common forms of anxiety disorders include:[2]

  • Agoraphobia – intense fear of public spaces. 
  • Generalized anxiety disorder – persistent feelings of anxiety or dread that interfere with daily life.
  • Panic disorder – frequent and unexpected panic attacks.
  • Selective mutism – being unable to speak in social situations despite having normal language skills.
  • Separation anxiety disorder – intense fear of being away from people the individual is attached to. 
  • Social anxiety disorder – intense and persistent fear associated with social situations.
  • Specific phobias – an intense fear or aversion to specific objects or situations.
  • Substance-induced anxiety disorder – panic attacks or symptoms of anxiety are brought on by the use of or withdrawal from alcohol or drugs.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder – excessive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder – experiencing a traumatic event that leads to an array of reactive symptoms. 

Anxiety disorders can cause significant disruption to an individual’s life. Additionally, struggling with an untreated anxiety disorder puts individuals at an increased risk of developing a co-occurring substance use disorder like alcoholism. 

The Symptoms of Anxiety

Oftentimes, it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between normal stress and an anxiety disorder. However, there are a few signs and symptoms to be aware of that indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder. 

Common symptoms of anxiety disorders include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless, or tense frequently 
  • Often feeling an impending sense of danger, panic, or doom 
  • Having an increased heart rate 
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating 
  • Trembling or shaking 
  • Feeling weak or tired 
  • Having a hard time concentrating on anything other than the present worry
  • Having difficulty sleeping 
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal issues 
  • Being unable to control worry
  • Avoiding people, places, or things that cause worry or panic 

Oftentimes, individuals who experience the symptoms of an anxiety disorder have a hard time completing everyday tasks. Because of this, many people turn to self-medication through the use of drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, doing so only exacerbates the individual’s anxiety over time. 

Co-Occurring Anxiety and Alcohol Use Disorder

The most common cause of comorbid anxiety and alcohol addiction is self-medication. According to the National Library of Medicine, 1 in 5 individuals who suffer from an anxiety disorder reported using alcohol to cope with stress.[3] 

Because alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, it slows down activity in an individual’s brain. This can result in short-term relief from anxiety. However, repeatedly using alcohol to reduce stress levels can cause the individual’s body to rely on the presence of alcohol. 

In other words, the CNS will become increasingly overactive when the individual does not consume alcohol. This is why self-medicating anxiety disorders with alcohol only furthers an individual’s issues in the long run. 

Can Alcoholism Increase Anxiety?

Excessive alcohol use is known to cause or increase symptoms of anxiety. This can happen for one of two reasons. 

First, when an individual drinks alcohol the GABA neurotransmitter is affected, causing symptoms of calmness and sedation. Once the alcohol wears off, the individual’s GABA levels increase. This causes the individual to experience an anxious, exaggerated, and overstimulated state, leading to symptoms of anxiety disorders like panic attacks. 

On the other hand, individuals who are addicted to alcohol will experience symptoms of withdrawal when they stop or cut down on drinking alcohol suddenly. One of the main symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is alcohol. Unfortunately, the symptoms of anxiety can persist far longer than physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. 

Because of this, it is extremely important for individuals who suffer from alcoholism and anxiety to attend medical detox and a dual diagnosis treatment program

Finding Help for Comorbid Anxiety and Alcoholism

If you or a loved one experience persistent feelings of anxiety, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Additionally, if you have used alcohol to soothe the symptoms of your anxiety disorder you may be suffering from co-occurring anxiety and alcoholism. 

It is extremely important for individuals who struggle with co-occurring anxiety and alcohol use disorder to seek professional help. Thankfully, dual diagnosis treatment programs like Mandala Healing Center are here to help. Contact us today for more information on our anxiety and alcoholism treatment programs.