Although this article addresses the connection between alcoholism and anxiety, it is important to note that at The Plans He Has For Me (“TPHHFM “) we prefer to use the term Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), as “alcoholism” tends to elicit a negative stigma that can prevent individuals from addressing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), alcohol use disorder (AUD) can be viewed as a medical condition which makes it challenging (or not possible) to stop or control alcohol use despite significant negative consequences. TPHHFM agrees with NIH in that the compulsive habit of drinking can be viewed as a brain disorder and that “evidence-based treatment with behavioral therapies, mutual-support groups, and/or medications can help people with AUD achieve and maintain recovery” (Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder, n.d.).
In society, there is a strong connection between the idea of alcohol and “unwinding.” I once heard a friend say, “having a drink after a long day at work is like changing into a pair of yoga pants.” For a long time, I also thought it made sense to have a drink if I felt stressed out or had a rough day. I always thought alcohol helped reduce anxiety. I discovered I was a little right, but I was also very, very wrong!
The truth is, there is a relationship between anxiety and alcohol use. At first, it seems like a positive one. As a chemical, alcohol can help calm the body in some tangible ways because alcohol has sedative and depressive properties. In this manner alcohol can bring on positive feelings of relaxation. Drinking also affects our brains by stimulating GABA production, which creates those desired feelings of relaxation. As a result, alcohol has become a popular strategy for many people when dealing with stressful days or anxious situations. Maybe you found yourself often tempted to have a glass of wine or a beer to calm your nerves. Unfortunately, drinking alcohol in a habitual way (especially heavily and over a long period of time), can actually increase your anxiety.
This alcohol bait and switch ultimately causes serious problems. In fact, the National Institute of Health calls alcohol a double-edged sword because it can relieve stress while also causing stress! In the article Stress and Alcohol Use Disorders Revisited, the NIH shares that although we may perceive positive effects, alcohol actually “stimulates the release of CRF and stress hormones… When repeated over many months to years, this struggle exerts its toll on the brain and body, as there is a cost associated with the chronic efforts to adapt to these stressors. Thus, drinking to relieve stress proves to be a double-edged sword” (NIH, Stress and Alcohol Use Disorders Revisited).
Stress is a routine part of life. We are faced with daily events that cause fear, frustration, excitement, sadness, anger, and a wide range of emotions. The more we turn to alcohol to cope with stress, then the more difficult it becomes to handle our stress in the long-term.
John 16:33 (NIV) tells us that I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. Our peace is supposed to be rooted in His promises and our troubles are a normal part of life in a broken world. Sadly, the worldly mantra of today is to focus on self and go to the quick fixes for a false sense of peace and joy. Alcohol, binge watching TV, food, drugs, porn, etc.
The reality is that we are being sold a lie. Not only does alcohol interfere with our nervous system, but alcohol messes with our hormones by increasing cortisol and negatively affecting how we respond to stress. Then there is the anxiety that comes from wondering what we did the night before, worrying about our health, and fearing that this habit is getting out of our control. “Over time, consuming too much alcohol can lead to blackouts, loss of memory, and even brain damage (especially if it causes other health problems, such as liver damage). These issues can create more anxiety as you cope with their symptoms” (Cherney, K., 2019). Sounds a lot less like cozy yoga pants and more like a bad ride on the roller coaster!
Now that I have been alcohol free for years I look back and see this relationship clearly. Although studies and research are helpful, my own experience confirms the connection between alcohol and stress. For years I suffered through many periods of anxiety. I have not experienced that type of anxiety since the day I truly chose to live alcohol free. My resilience muscle has been steadily getting stronger, much better equipped to handle the stressors of life. Furthermore, “self-care” is a real thing now, not just a woo-woo concept. There are so many positive ways to deal with stress, ways that invest instead of stealing from your physical and mental health. Nature walks, quality time with family and friends, exercise, gardening, animal therapy, soaking in the tub, and cooking and sharing amazing food are all ways I have increased the quality of my life while decreasing my negative reactions to stress.
God’s promises are true. Following Him will provide for a wonderful hope and future as we rest in Him and use our God-given gifts for the Kingdom. This cannot be accomplished when alcohol abuse is present. Jeramiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
My years free of alcohol have added hobbies, interests, closer friendships, authentic adventures, meaningful experiences and a deeper connection with my Heavenly Father. These years have also had losses, hardships, and difficulties, since life wouldn’t be life otherwise. Thankfully, I have been able to manage these typical life challenges in a healthy way, with God by my side. Ultimately, resilience, stress management and an unending faith in the truth of His Word are things we can practice so that we can experience the life that was meant by our loving God.