Many people curb their nervousness with a nice glass of wine or other alcohol beverage. Whether you’re gathering the courage to socialize with people you barely know, fly on an airplane, or even if you’re just feeling worried about the future, alcohol can help loosen inhibitions and dampen self doubt and fears. While you may feel more relaxed temporarily, using alcohol to tame your anxiety can backfire in the long run.
Even though you may be feeling calmer after the first one or two drinks, your body is processing the alcohol and the physiological effects can actually trigger feelings of anxiety. Alcohol can negatively impact blood sugar levels each time that it is consumed. Research has shown that the body responds to alcohol by increasing insulin secretion, causing low blood sugar and also impairs the body’s hormonal response that would normally be able to normalize blood sugar levels. Drinking as little as two ounces of alcohol on an empty stomach can lead to very low blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar levels can cause dizziness, confusion, weakness, nervousness, shaking and numbness, all of which can mimic the symptoms of anxiety, or even trigger an episode of anxiety.
Alcohol consumption can also cause dehydration. Alcohol is a fairly strong diuretic, meaning that the body loses water by producing an increased amount of urine. Symptoms of dehydration include dizziness, muscle weakness, lightheadedness and nausea, again, all of which can mimic symptoms of anxiety, or induce anxious reactions related to the fear of being ill.
Alcohol consumption has a sedative effect on the body. It is a drug that depresses the central nervous system. Immediate effects are a sense of euphoria, decreased inhibitions, and lessened anxiety. However, over time the chronic use of alcohol could result in tolerance, dependency, and damage to many organs of the body including the brain, liver, and heart.
Longer Term Effects
People with anxiety are up to three times more likely to have an alcohol problem or other substance abuse than those without anxiety. It takes increasingly larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the same effects, leading to alcohol dependence. Long-term alcohol use can have multiple negative effects on the body and aggravate existing anxiety.
Recent studies have shown that heavy drinking or long term drinking stresses the body and causes it to have higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is necessary in short term stress situations because it helps focus alertness and attention, but cortisol also suppresses bodily functions such as wound repair, bone growth, digestion, and reproduction. Chronically high cortisol levels therefore interfere with these important processes in the body. Alcohol use also depletes the body of vitamin B6 and folic acid, which the body needs to help cope with stress. Long-term exposure to alcohol reduces the levels of the GABA-benzodiazepine receptor in the central nervous system and reduces the brain’s ability to calm the mind and the body and cope with anxiety in the long run.
Serotonin is a chemical in the body which is needed for memory, learning, and especially for feelings of ‘wellbeing”. Drinking alcohol can temporarily boost serotonin levels, therefore making you feel happier, but in the long term, excess alcohol can actually lower serotonin levels, and therefore either causing or exacerbating depression.
In another recent study, researchers found that high anxiety levels in humans are related to a deficiency in an important protein called CREB, which is needed by the amygdala, the area of the brain where emotions are processed. The amygdala is important in calming anxious thoughts. The study results showed that drinking alcohol boosts the CREB levels in the brain and therefore lessens anxiety, which helps to explain why so many anxious people us alcohol to self-medicate. The good news is that there are other, healthier ways to naturally raise CREB levels, such as getting regular exercise and listening to music. Some antidepressants can also help raise CREB levels also.
So, even though using alcohol is an easy, short term fix for anxious feelings, you’re not doing your body or your mind any favors by self-medicating with alcohol. Learning to manage anxiety (and naturally boost your CREB levels) in healthy ways such as through exercise, music, and expressing creativity is possible. Psychotherapy can also be very helpful. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy is usually the most effective long-term treatment for anxiety disorders. Therapy treats more than just the symptoms of anxiety. It helps you discover the underlying causes of your worries and fears. In therapy, you’ll learn to relax, perceive and interpret situations in new, less frightening ways, and learn better coping and problem-solving skills. Through therapy, you learn the tools to overcome anxiety and how to use them effectively.
© Copyright 2011 by Becki Hein, MS, LPC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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