Mental health and your drinking

Erynn Blansjaar | January 2019 | 6 minutes

We’re often told alcohol is a depressant, but what effects can drinking actually have on our mental health? Taking part in Dry January can clear a foggy brain and help encourage you get support for any underlying problems you might have.

Many of us will admit to drinking to manage stress or symptoms of anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. It’s common to hear people say that they drink to give them more confidence or to cope where they might otherwise feel uncomfortable, such as large groups of people or one-on-one situations. In other words, we ‘self-medicate’ with alcohol to get through difficult times.

In the short term this might feel like it’s helping, but really it can make things worse:

  • As the initial chill-out effect of the alcohol wears off, you might feel worse than you did before. This will be particularly felt during hangovers – ‘hangxiety’ is a real thing, people.
  • Self-medicating for mental health problems can often mean the underlying problem or condition isn’t addressed
  • Drinking too much can worsen an underlying mental health problem

How does alcohol affect our mental health longer-term? The relationship between alcohol consumption and mental health is very complex, but here is a brief explanation of the current evidence.

Anxiety

Drinking alcohol causes chemical changes in your brain that can affect your mental wellbeing. At first, the drink may lower your inhibitions and reduce anxiety by depressing the brain’s impulse control centre. But after a while, with more frequent alcohol consumption, the chemical make-up of your brain starts to change – the booze decreases the number of neurotransmitters in your brain which it needs to naturally reduce anxiety. This means that, over time, you’ll need more alcohol to get the same anxiety-reduced feeling. Repetitive self-medication like this could lead to more serious alcohol problems in the long term.

Another potential danger is that it’s impossible to keep the amount of alcohol in your system consistent. This means you can’t maintain the anxiety-reducing effect alcohol can give – eventually, the effects turn negative as more alcohol enters your bloodstream. After a little while, the inhibiting effect of the alcohol turns into a depressant, and you might start to feel worse.

Depression

Serotonin is the neurotransmitter often associated with happiness. Regular alcohol consumption reduces the amount of serotonin you have in your body, thus making you feel worse than before. Again, some might turn to booze for that temporary relief... It’s so easy to fall into self-medicating, but it’s not a solution – in fact, it’s contributing to the problem.[1]

Going dry for a month could shed some light on your mental health problems. Not having alcohol in your system for four weeks will clear some of the fog in your head and allow you to assess how you’re really feeling.

It gives your brain a break – long enough to reset. If you’ve been feeling low for a while, now is a good time to work out whether alcohol has been making it worse, and whether it might be time to talk to a professional.

If you rely heavily on alcohol to get you through the day, taking on Dry January may not be for you – quitting cold turkey can have adverse effects on your health. Take our AUDIT quiz to see whether you might be at risk.

We have information about support and who you can talk to here. If you’re concerned about a friend or family member, you can go here for advice.

References

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