By: Nicole Wishneff, LICSW | Lucid Lane
With the stresses and responsibilities of our everyday lives, it isn’t uncommon in our society for people to pour a glass of wine or mix up an ice cold cocktail to relieve the worries of the day or week behind us. But is that beverage actually helping our stress and anxiety or is it hurting us?
Alcohol is everywhere. It is easily accessible on every corner, in stores and restaurants. We see it widely consumed on TV and movies. It’s synonymous with celebration, used to build up courage, and a staple in kicking our feet up to relax. Alcohol is so popular that the Alcohol Beverages Market is expected to reach $1,684 billion globally by 2025. Data on the United States supports that expectation. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 214.3 million (85.6%) people over the age of 18 reported alcohol use in their lifetime.
While occasional alcohol use when relaxing may not always result in serious consequences, heavy drinking or binge drinking can often lead to major, long-term effects. To get a better idea of how much alcohol constitutes these types of drinking patterns, definitions from SAMHSA describe them below.
Furthermore, the aforementioned 2019 national survey indicated 15.8 million (6.3%) people over the age of 18 reported heavy alcohol use in the past month and 64.6 million (25.8%) people over the age of 18 reported bingeing on alcohol in the past month.
Receiving a diagnosis of an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) by a mental health professional can be one of the effects of such drinking behavior. AUD is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as “a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” People can experience varying levels of severity depending on their presenting symptoms, however, a person diagnosed with AUD commonly experiences the following:
- Consuming more alcohol or for a longer period of time than intended
- Finding it difficult to limit consumption of alcohol
- Frequently spending time consuming and/or thinking about alcohol
- Experiencing a strong urge or craving to consume alcohol
- Alcohol consumption interfering with responsibilities and/or relationships
- Needing more alcohol to feel the desired effects (an increased tolerance)
- Consuming alcohol despite continued feelings of depression or anxiety
The last symptom, consuming alcohol despite continued feelings of depression or anxiety, is particularly significant. While many people consume alcohol to relax and relieve such feelings as anxiety, alcohol use is actually contributing and heightening those anxious feelings. Alcohol is both a depressant and sedative causing an immediate state of relaxation, typically noticed within the first 10 minutes of consumption. However, there is more happening internally within our bodies when imbibing alcoholic beverages that can lead to long-term health consequences.
One such factor involves cortisol, which is a hormone our bodies naturally release and is mainly associated with our “fight-or-flight” response to fear or stress. While cortisol can be helpful to us in the short-term, such as increasing our ability to run from a dangerous and life-threatening event, long-term production of cortisol can contribute to increased levels of anxiety, often referred to as “free-floating anxiety.” Interestingly, studies have found that cortisol is not only released when a person consumes alcohol, but also when withdrawing from alcohol. Increased cortisol isn’t the only physiological effect that increases anxiety during or after alcohol use. Others include changes in our dopamine levels, which are associated with our reward system as well as other neurotransmitters, like serotonin and endorphins that directly affect our moods. The resulting anxiety after alcohol use is so common that the popular phrase “hangxiety” has been coined in recent years. Additionally, the connection between alcohol use and anxiety can be so significant that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V), has specific criteria for Alcohol-Induced Anxiety Disorder when the alcohol consumption and increased anxiety becomes severe enough.
It is not surprising that in the past year, the world has become more accustomed to increased feelings of anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on the expected risks of increased stress, worry, and fear during these unprecedented times. The CDC’s guidance notes symptoms of heightened stress can result in increased consumption of alcohol and other substances and advises that excessive use should be avoided to help mitigate these feelings. Although such advice has been shared, studies show that there has actually been an increase in alcohol use during the pandemic. One such study indicated nearly two-thirds of the research sample reported increased alcohol consumption since the onset of COVID-19. NielsenIQ reported soaring online alcohol sales in the first several weeks of the pandemic compared to the same time of year in 2019 with an increase of 234%, making it the fastest-growing e-commerce department among consumer packaged goods (CPG).
Sipping on that glass of wine or cocktail may seem to help wash away the stress, worries, and anxiety we often feel from our day-to-day grind, and even more so while navigating a global pandemic, but in reality, it is potentially exacerbating these experiences. The next time you feel the need to head to your in-home bar, consider a few alternatives below that are proven to decrease stress and anxiety, both practicing in the short-term and as long-term habits.
- Relaxing breathing exercises, such as the 4-7-8 technique (Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, hold breath for 7 seconds, exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat cycle 4 times.) or other forms of meditation
- Exercise (to your preference of intensity, whether it be gentle yoga or a HIIT workout)
- Spend time in nature (be it a long walk or simply sitting outdoors)
- Eat a nutritious meal and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water
- Talk it out. Confide in a trusted friend or professional to share how you are feeling.
Find Nicole and Lucid Lane at https://www.lucidlane.com/
Lucid Lane is dedicated to empowering people with pain and substance use to live healthier and happier lives.
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