WARNING: this post contains in-depth language and information about suicide and self-harm. If you are in acute crisis looking for help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or dial 911.
It's normal to hang out with friends and family—and, for some groups, drinking can be a big part of socializing. But if you don't want to drink or have one more, you shouldn't have to.
Sometimes, the pressure to drink might come from friends or family members. Contrary to popular belief, there's no "safe way" to consume alcohol, and drinking alcohol should always happen on your own terms. If you choose to drink, it's important to prioritize your mental health and listen to your body.
It might seem like alcohol has a positive impact on your mental health when you're feeling buzzed, but the long-term effects of alcohol can lead to serious mental health problems, especially if you already have a pre-existing mental health disorder. Research shows that excessive alcohol use is linked to a wide range of mental health issues, from anxiety disorders to an increased risk of suicide. So, how does alcohol affect your mental health and what can you do about it?
1. Alcohol exacerbates anxiety symptoms
Anxiety is a natural part of life, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It's your body's response to difficult situations, and it's completely normal to have a drink to unwind at the end of a stressful work day. Unlike regular anxiety, anxiety disorders are diagnosable mental health conditions that go beyond your body's typical response to anxiety. If you're living with an anxiety disorder, feelings of anxiety tend to be constant and can worsen over time.
If you have an anxiety disorder, a few drinks might help you feel more at ease. Unfortunately, alcohol consumption only provides temporary relief from anxiety. The so-called "relaxation" that you might feel after drinking happens due to chemical changes in the brain, but the initial mood boost wears off fast.
In most cases, alcohol only makes anxiety worse. When substance abuse and anxiety fuel each other, this is known as a dual diagnosis. Prolonged drinking can exacerbate anxiety symptoms, even if you're using alcohol to help you calm down. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), even moderate drinking triggers anxiety symptoms.
What’s more, hangovers can make anxiety worse in addition to drinking itself. Whether it’s the physical symptoms of a hangover impacting your mental state or if you’re experiencing anxiety at what you might have said while intoxicated, the impact of alcohol does not stop once you’re stopped drinking.
If you rely on heavy drinking to ease your anxiety, you might find yourself drinking more often to feel better. Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorder.
2. Alcohol abuse is linked to depression symptoms
The symptoms of depression and regular heavy drinking are closely linked. Heavy alcohol use can worsen the symptoms of depression, while people with depression may turn to alcohol to relieve their symptoms. Alcohol problems can be linked to depression in two ways:
- You might drink too much (binge drink), which makes you feel depressed, guilty, or ashamed.
- You turn to binge drinking to relieve major depression, bipolar disorder, or other mental health issues.
Our brains rely on a delicate balance of neurotransmitters. As a depressant, alcohol abuse can disrupt your brain function, influencing your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and actions. At the same time, hangovers and excessive drinking create a vicious cycle, leading to feelings of guilt and despair, irritability, school problems, and relationship issues.
In addition, heavy drinking can worsen the side effects of some antidepressants. Some commonly prescribed antidepressant medications tend to increase the risk of relapse to heavy drinking in people who are trying to abstain from alcohol use.
3. Excessive alcohol use can contribute to psychiatric disorders
In some cases, extreme binge drinking, such as drinking significant amounts of alcohol every day for several weeks, can cause psychosis—a mental illness characterized by hallucinations and delusions. Many people who have psychotic disorders lose touch with reality, have trouble telling the difference between real life and hallucinations, and experience memory loss.
Substance-induced psychosis, including alcohol-induced psychosis, can happen with drug abuse. People who abuse alcohol face a higher risk of triggering psychological problems over time.
Psychosis can be caused by acute intoxication, withdrawal symptoms, or chronic alcohol use. In particular, hallucinations and delusions are more common among drinkers with alcohol dependence who suddenly stop drinking.
4. Alcohol dependence can lead to withdrawal symptoms
Over time, drinking too much alcohol can lead to alcohol dependence or alcohol addiction. When someone who is physically dependent on alcohol stops drinking or drastically reduces their alcohol intake, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can arise.
Withdrawal symptoms can impact an individual's mental and physical health—and psychological distress and health problems can make it even harder to stop drinking. The severity of withdrawal symptoms often worsens for heavy drinkers who suddenly decrease their alcohol consumption.
According to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), common withdrawal symptoms include:
- Anxiety, including uncontrollable sweating and shakiness
- Insomnia or restlessness
- Mood swings and irritability
- Increased blood pressure or heart rate
- Rapid breathing
5. Alcohol can increase the risk of suicide
Because alcohol use makes you lose your inhibitions and act more impulsively, it may lead to dangerous actions, such as self harm or suicide. For some people, excessive drinking can lead to impaired judgment, but it may also be used as a means to ease the distress associated with committing suicide. Studies show that heavy drinking increases an individual's risk of suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and death by suicide.
If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts, mental health services are available. For immediate mental health care, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or visit your closest emergency room.
Alcohol abuse and mental health resources at Charlie Health
If alcohol use is affecting your mental health, help is available. It might feel overwhelming to reach out for professional help, but working with a licensed therapist is the first step toward controlling your drinking and overcoming substance use disorder.
At Charlie Health, we provide high-quality mental health treatment for adolescents, young adults, and their family members. Our intensive outpatient program (IOP) combines individual therapy, supported groups, and family therapy to create a customized treatment plan tailored to your unique needs.
Whether you're dealing with alcohol abuse, living with the repercussions of a loved one's alcohol use disorder, or experiencing another mental health problem, we're here to support you and explore your treatment options. Our qualified team of mental health professionals will help you navigate your alcohol problem, gain insight into your mental health, and start feeling better.