Alcohol and Anxiety
The abuse of alcohol and anxiety often make each other significantly worse. This is especially problematic as the two are often closely associated.
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The Relationship Between Alcohol and Anxiety
As is the case with many dual-diagnosis conditions, addiction to alcohol and anxiety commonly exist together within the same person. Anxiety is both a reason that many individuals drink and a result of drinking.
What Is Anxiety?
The term “anxiety” is widely used today as a quick self-diagnosis. People cling to the term for whenever they feel nervous or shy about a new experience or social setting. It is common for students or an employee to feel anxious about an assignment of presentation, this is normal anxiety. However, actual Anxiety Disorders can be much more dangerous if left untreated and can often be a trigger for someone to self-medicate. Anxiety is not a monolithic condition. There are actually a number of distinct anxiety disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a status defined by a constant level of stress in day-to-day life, even if the person is just staying home. This can usually mean the development of phobias, or irrational fears, connected to what triggers the individual’s disorder. Constant fears of someone breaking in or their house catching fire may be some of the triggers behind their anxiety, or just an impending sense of doom brought on by themselves or some external factor. Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a strong reason that some turn to alcohol as self-medication.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social Anxiety Disorder, as its name suggests, is chronic anxiety when dealing in social settings. It is not just shyness, like many tend to think, but actual physical sickness when someone anticipates or is involved in a social situation. Like other anxiety disorders, it is not uncommon for phobias to grow out of anxiety. Agoraphobia, the fear of being trapped far from home, can arise out of someone’s anxiety of being in social situations. They can begin imagining the horrible things that can be happening if they are unable to get home, everything from people hating them, to something potentially happening at home.
Individuals who suffer from Panic Disorder are prone to recurring, severe panic attacks. They are so frequent that people with Panic Disorder are often anticipating the next one. These attacks can mean sweating, pounding heart, shaking, choking, shortness of breath, or a sense of impending doom. Intense panic attacks can even seem like heart attacks.
Other Anxiety Disorders
Any anxiety disorder can be dangerous, but some have become more notorious than those listed above. Both Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are sometimes considered anxiety disorders. Phobias, while they can be connected to and trigger any of the disorders above, can also be their own independent disorder.
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Self-Medicating Anxiety with Alcohol
Anxiety is a disorder that preys on the central nervous system, or CNS. It can accelerate the heart rate, increase blood flow, and push the brain into overdrive. In cases of extreme anxiety that need to be medically treated, doctors will typically prescribe benzodiazepines, as they are CNS depressants. However, the effects that make benzodiazepines useful in these diagnoses are the same effects many experience with alcohol.
In cases where someone cannot gain a prescription for their Anxiety Disorder (perhaps the doctor does not think it warrants a prescription or wants the patient to try other methods to get their anxiety under control), the person suffering may turn to alcohol. This is also very common among anxiety sufferers who either cannot afford therapy or are too embarrassed to seek it. While this may seem like it works initially, in truth, the slight assistance that alcohol provides is fleeting and it comes with great cost.
Alcohol and Anxiety Statistics
It’s estimated that 40 million Americans suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder at any given time.
1-in-5 individuals with anxiety report using alcohol to cope with stress.
20% of people diagnosed with an alcohol or substance use disorder also suffer from an anxiety or mood disorder.
Addiction to Alcohol and Anxiety as Co-Occurring Disorders
It is common practice for someone to have a drink or two after a hard day to alleviate stress. However, when that person has an anxiety disorder, it is easy for that drink to turn into three or five as they try silence their mind. This self-medication of the issue makes them more likely to develop a dependence and eventually an addiction.
On the other hand, it is not uncommon for someone who has become addicted to alcohol to develop symptoms of anxiety. This can happen because of the effects that alcohol abuse can have on the person’s body, or from withdrawal if they go too long without a drink. It is difficult for those who have developed symptoms of both alcoholism and anxiety to truly remember what came first, but figuring that out can be a monumental step in their recovery.
Treating Addiction to Alcoholism and Anxiety
If you’re suffering from addiction to alcohol and anxiety, it can be hard to find the right help. A lot of people view alcoholism as the more immediate danger, but without treating the underlying anxiety, you’re more likely to relapse. Finding a place that understands how to treat your anxiety disorder can be the difference between failure and long-term recovery. If you don’t know where to turn to and need help figuring out your next steps, try reaching out to a dedicated treatment specialist. They can point you in the right direction and help you find the right treatment for you.
- Medical Reviewer — Last Reviewed: April 19, 2019
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2017). Facts & Statistics. Retrieved June 7th, 2018 from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2011). Substance Use Disorders. Retrieved June 7th, 2018 from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/substance-abuse
Carey, Elea. (2017). Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved June 7th, 2018 from https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder#symptoms
Cherney, Kristeen; Jewell, Tim. (2016). Alcohol and Anxiety. Retrieved June 7th, 2018 from https://www.healthline.com/health/alcohol-and-anxiety
National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved June 7th, 2018 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
Smith, Joshua P. PhD; Randall, Carrie L. PhD. (2012). Anxiety and Alcohol Use Disorders Comorbidity and Treatment Considerations. Retrieved June 7th, 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860396/
Stossel, Scott. (2014). Surviving Anxiety. Retrieved June 7th, 2018 from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/01/surviving_anxiety/355741/
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