5 Ways Alcohol Affects Mental Health
Drinking too much can take a toll on mental health, worsening anxiety and depression symptoms for some. Here are five ways alcohol can affect mental health and tips for balancing drinking and well-being.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
Updated: September 26, 2023
Table of Contents
Trigger warning: Suicide. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or are in danger of harming yourself, this is a mental health emergency. Contact The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline 24/7 by calling or texting 988.
Our brains rely on a delicate balance of chemicals. As a depressant, alcohol can disrupt the brain’s balance of neurotransmitters, influencing our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and actions—and sometimes our mental health. Wondering how exactly alcohol affects your mental health and what can you do about it? Keep reading to learn five common psychological effects of excessive alcohol consumption and get tips for balancing drinking and well-being.
5 ways alcohol affects mental health
Although it might seem like alcohol positively impacts your mental health by giving you a buzz, the long-term effects of alcohol can cause serious mental health problems. Research consistently shows that excessive alcohol use, particularly when it leads to alcohol use disorder (AUD), is linked to a wide range of mental health issues, from anxiety disorders to an increased risk of suicide. Here are five common ways alcohol affects mental health:
Alcohol can worsen anxiety
Chronic alcohol use is linked to depression
Excessive alcohol use can cause psychosis
Alcohol dependence can lead to withdrawal symptoms
Alcohol can increase the risk of suicide
1. Alcohol can worsen anxiety
If you’re feeling social anxiety at a party, a few drinks may help you feel more at ease, but this feeling is often short-lived—and can ultimately worsen anxiety. As the alcohol wears off, the body’s response to stress and anxiety can become heightened, often resulting in increased feelings of unease and tension. Simply put, the relaxation that someone experiences after drinking wears off fast.
Research has long shown that chronic alcohol use often co-occurs with anxiety: having AUD increases the risk of developing an anxiety disorder, and vice versa. Recent studies take these findings a step further, showing that anxiety- and alcohol-related mental health diagnoses may share overlapping neurobiological systems. In short, alcohol misuse and anxiety disorders may have underlying brain processes that make each other worse.
2. Chronic alcohol use is linked to depression
Like anxiety, the symptoms of depression and regular heavy drinking have been shown to be clinically linked. Research shows that chronic alcohol use can worsen the symptoms of depression, and people with depression may turn to alcohol to relieve their symptoms.
Also, experts warn that chronic alcohol use can worsen the side effects of some antidepressants, including symptoms like drowsiness and impaired coordination, and keep the medicines from working as well as they should. Also, combining alcohol with antidepressants can—at worst—cause a fatal rise in blood pressure or liver toxicity.
3. Excessive alcohol use can cause psychosis
In some cases, research shows that acute intoxication, alcohol withdrawal, and chronic alcoholism can cause psychosis, a mental illness marked by hallucinations and delusions. 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
When someone who is physically dependent on alcohol stops drinking or drastically reduces their alcohol intake, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can arise. These withdrawal symptoms can impact a person’s physical and mental health and can devolve into a vicious cycle, as the symptoms can make it even harder to stop drinking. Research shows that alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, including mental health symptoms like anxiety (on the mild end of the spectrum) and hallucinations (on the severe side of the spectrum). Physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal range from insomnia and gastrointestinal upset to high blood pressure and temperature dysregulation.
5. Alcohol can increase the risk of suicide
Studies show that heavy drinking increases a person’s risk of suicidal thoughts, suicidal attempts, and death by suicide. Because alcohol use makes people lose their inhibitions and act more impulsively, it may lead to dangerous actions, such as self-harm or suicide, research finds. Also, for some people, alcohol may be used as a coping mechanism to deal with an underlying mental health condition or emotional distress, which are risk factors for suicidal ideation and completion.
When and how to seek help for alcohol use
It’s important to seek support if alcohol use is causing problems in your day-to-day life or affecting your physical or mental health.
The first step in seeking help is recognizing the signs that alcohol is causing issues in your life. These may include neglecting responsibilities at school or work, relationship issues with friends or family, and any physical or mental health concerns (including those outlined above) exacerbated by drinking. If you’re still unsure if you should seek help for alcohol use, consider the following questions:
- Do I typically drink more than I originally intended when I started?
- Have I tried to quit or cut down on drinking alcohol without success?
- Have I neglected my work, family, or other responsibilities due to alcohol consumption?
- Has alcohol use led to conflicts or problems in my relationships with family, friends, or colleagues?
- Have I experienced physical health issues like hangovers, accidents, or medical conditions related to alcohol use?
- Do I notice that my mental health, including mood and anxiety, worsens when I drink?
- Do friends or family express concern about my drinking?
- Has my overall quality of life been negatively impacted by drinking alcohol?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, it may be worthwhile to pursue professional support. Remember: asking for help is a sign of strength.
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After recognizing that you need to seek help for alcohol use, consider reaching out to a trusted healthcare provider, including a primary care physician or a mental health professional. They can discuss your concerns and provide guidance on treatment options. Depending on your needs, a healthcare provider may refer you to an alcohol addiction counselor or a higher level of care (like an inpatient or outpatient program) or encourage you to seek outpatient therapy for co-occurring mental health issues. Another source of support may be an alcohol abuse support group, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Once you have a source of professional support, you should reach out to supportive friends and family and share your decision to seek help. These people can encourage you on your journey and serve as a support system as you develop healthier coping mechanisms and prioritize self-care.
Support for mental health-related alcohol misuse at Charlie Health
If alcohol use is affecting your mental health, Charlie Health may be able to help. Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly support for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions—including conditions like anxiety and depression that have led to alcohol use disorder and alcohol dependence that has worsened underlying mental health conditions (please note that we cannot treat clients with a substance use disorder who do not have a co-occurring mental health condition). Charlie Health’s IOP combines group sessions, individual therapy, and family therapy to create a customized treatment plan tailored to your unique needs.
Our qualified team of mental health professionals can support you in navigating the mental health issues that underlie your alcohol problem and help you start feeling better. Fill out this short form to learn more and see if Charlie Health is a fit for you.