Alcohol and mental health share a very complex relationship. People with mental health disorders often use alcohol as a coping mechanism, giving them a way to temporarily alleviate some of their symptoms. But drinking alcohol excessively can make existing mental health problems worse – and add new issues to your life – ultimately resulting in a self-perpetuating feedback loop.
How does the relationship between alcohol and mental health develop? And what can you do to stop this cycle?
Alcohol and mental health
Alcohol can impact your mental health in several ways. In the short-term, a night of heavy drinking can leave you with a hangover, causing you headaches, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and aches throughout your body. It can also make it harder to work, communicate with others, and live your life normally. If you’re hungover frequently enough, it can add a major burden to your life, leading to disconnection and depression.
Alcohol is also a depressant, giving it the power to negatively influence the production of serotonin and dopamine, two important ‘happy’ hormones that the average person needs to feel well. If you drink heavily or frequently enough, your brain’s production of these hormones can be impaired, making it harder for you to feel naturally happy.
Even without any preexisting conditions, heavy usage of alcohol can introduce new mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and memory loss. Once you start feeling symptoms in these areas, continued heavy drinking will continue making them worse.
On top of that, drinking alcohol in excessive amounts can negatively influence your life in many ways. Your job, your relationships, and your hobbies may all suffer if you drink too much – ultimately harming your mental health in many ways.
Depression and alcohol
There’s a strong correlation between preexisting mental disorders and alcohol use disorders (AUDs). People with an AUD are 3.7 times more likely to have co-occurring major depressive disorder (MDD) than the rest of the population.
That’s not just because alcohol consumption leads to depression. It’s also because depression leads to alcohol consumption. When depressed, many people turn to alcohol to help them forget about their problems, even if only temporarily; they often don’t realize that alcohol consumption typically makes things worse, not better.
Anxiety and alcohol
A similar relationship exists for anxiety and alcohol. Nearly 20% of the adult population of the United States suffers from some kind of anxiety disorder, and many of those people are constantly looking for ways to alleviate their anxiety symptoms. Unfortunately, alcohol looks like an attractive option to many of them.
Though alcohol can sometimes help you forget about your problems temporarily and spend less time fixated on things you can’t control, alcohol also has the potential to magnify some of your anxieties – especially if you abuse this drug.
How to break the cycle
Fortunately, there are several strategies that can help you break this cycle.
- Acknowledge the problem. Understand that alcohol use and mental health disorders are intricately connected and bearing down on your life in a complex way. Once you realise that a problem exists, and that the magnitude of the problem is substantive, you’ll naturally be more motivated to fix it.
- Get help. It’s incredibly difficult to end and addiction on your own or independently change your lifestyle habits for the better. It’s much easier if you’re willing to get help. That could mean enlisting professional medical services, or simply asking a friend or family member for support.
- Stop drinking alcohol to cope. Stop turning to alcohol as your primary coping tool. Whenever you feel depressed, anxious, angry, or sad, find a different distraction. Resist the temptation to indulge in a drink, and do something healthy instead.
- Invest in more positive hobbies. Try to spend more time and effort on positive hobbies that enrich your life. Staying physically active with a thorough exercise regimen and spending plenty of time outside is a great place to start. It’s also a good idea to make more friends, strengthen your existing relationships, and socialise with others regularly. While you’re at it, stay hydrated and try to eat healthy. These positive changes, together, can help you beat most minor mental health issues.
- Make gradual changes. Don’t try to uproot your life all at once. Instead, commit to more gradual, accessible changes. You can complete this journey one step at a time, so don’t overwhelm yourself at the very beginning.
If you’re dealing with an alcohol use disorder, a mental health disorder, or both, your problems aren’t going to disappear overnight. But you do have control over how you live your life and how your life can improve. Even small changes, like drinking less or spending more time outside, can make a big difference.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.