Alcohol and Anxiety

Alcohol is one of the most used drugs in the UK, with an estimated 602,391 dependent drinkers. However, only 18% of people are receiving treatment[1] and statistics demonstrate that since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an exponential increase in hazardous drinking behaviours.

Monthly YouGov surveys have demonstrated the following increase in those deemed at high risk from alcohol consumption:[2]

  • October 2019 – 5m people (11.9%)
  • February 2020 – 6m people (12.4%)
  • October 2021 – 8m people (18.1%)

It is recommended that we should drink no more than 14 units a week. A unit roughly equates to half a pint (500ml) of regular strength lager/beer/cider, a small (125ml) glass of wine, or a single shot (25ml) of spirits.[3]

However, with the increase of at-home drinking, compared to going out, more and more adults start drinking earlier in the day and finish later, resulting in increasing levels of alcohol being consumed. These dangerous drinking habits, which can lead to the development of an alcohol disorder or alcoholism, are generally classified into three main categories:

  • Binge drinking – consuming five drinks for a man and four drinks for a woman over a two-hour period.
  • Heavy drinking – binge drinking on five or more days in the past month.
  • High-intensity drinking – consuming alcohol two or more times the binge drinking thresholds.

Alcohol affects all parts of the human body as well as the brain with numerous associated risks, including alcohol poisoning, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, addiction, and mental health disorders.[4]

One of the lesser-known side-effects of alcohol is its impact on the brain and nervous system, which can create the onset of anxiety symptoms.

The connection between alcohol and anxiety is so well recognised that it has its own colloquial term – hangxiety – a combination of hangover and anxiety. In this blog, we aim to explore hangxietyand why it affects so many of us.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is fear or worry about what is about to happen and is characterised by a combination of physical symptoms and psychological disturbances, including increased heart rate, fast, shallow breathing, trembling, dizziness, and sweating.

This worry can help keep us alert if we’re in danger or help us to perform in a stressful scenario such as a job interview; however, if anxiety occurs in a situation where it is not required, if it is too intense, or if it lasts too long, it can make the individual’s life difficult.

Anxiety has many forms, including:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – a person has an underlying sense of anxiety on a day to day basis and in various situations.
  • Panic disorder – a person experiences extreme anxiety and fear, often triggered by specific situations that cause intense anxiety and panic attacks.
  • Phobias, including social phobia – a person has an intense fear of being around people, more often those they are unfamiliar with.

Alcohol and Anxiety

Alcohol is a depressant that acts as a sedative, so many believe drinking alcohol will help them relax, feel more at ease, and be more socially confident.

However, these benefits are short-lived as alcohol disrupts the balance of hormones, chemicals, and processes in the brain. When you first consume alcohol, the inhibitors in your brain are lowered, which causes a relaxed sensation and the release of dopamine, our feel-good hormone that is an important part of the brain’s reward system.

As your body processes the alcohol, you can begin to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms similar to those with alcohol dependence. The sedative effects are replaced with a rollercoaster of emotions and sensations as our bodies and brains return to homeostasis.

The imbalance and increase of brain activity caused by alcohol result in psychological feelings of depression, anxiety, agitation, irritability, dread, and fear. These go hand in hand with the physical hangover symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, and headaches.

A groundbreaking  2021 study conducted by the University of Oxford showed that the detrimental impact of alcohol on the brain meant that there was no such thing as a safe level of drinking.[5] The study’s most important findings analysed the brains’ grey matter regions which play a vital role in regulating memory, movement, and emotions.[6]The results evidenced that even moderate alcohol consumption had widespread adverse effects on the brain, causing neurodegenerative issues as well as a decline in mental health.[7]

For those with pre-existing anxiety and other mental health conditions, the effects of hangxiety will be considerably more intense and distressing, and the experience of panic attacks is also not uncommon.

A Vicious Circle

Often people with anxiety issues turn to self-soothing strategies to ease their symptoms, such as binge-watching TV, comfort eating, drugs, and alcohol. As we have already mentioned, turning towards alcohol may help for a short spell but will most likely make the anxious person feel considerably worse, so they will drink more to ease the anxiety, creating a vicious circle where they:

  • Drink
  • Feel calmer as the alcohol initially affects the brain
  • Experience anxiety as a symptom of alcohol withdrawal
  • Drink again to try to relieve anxiety

As tolerance to alcohol builds, the person will need greater quantities to achieve the same results. This, in turn, increases the symptoms of hangxiety the next day, and this becomes a slippery slope towards dependence and alcohol use disorder.

Reducing Alcohol Intake

We understand how challenging it can be to escape from habitual alcohol use, especially in the world of work with client lunches, networking events, and social activities.

If you are experiencing alcohol-induced anxiety or are concerned about the amount of alcohol you are consuming, we encourage you to start reducing your intake today.

You do not need to be an alcoholic to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms (AWS). Alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary, so predicting how a person will respond to reducing intake or abstention is difficult to quantify.

If you are struggling to lower your alcohol consumption, please contact us today. Alcoholism is a disease that does not discriminate, and at Revoke, we can help. We offer an outpatient treatment programme tailored to your needs, and through effective professional treatment, you will be able to focus on recovery and get on with living the life you deserve free from the detrimental impacts of alcohol.


Sources:

[1] “Alcohol Statistics | Alcohol Change UK”. Alcohol Change UK, 2022, https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/fact-sheets/alcohol-statistics.

[2] “Statistics On Alcohol, England 2020”. GOV.UK, 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/statistics-on-alcohol-england-2020.

[3] “Alcohol Misuse”. Nhs.Uk, 2021, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/.

[4] Rehm, Jürgen. “The Risks Associated With Alcohol Use And Alcoholism”. Pubmed Central (PMC), 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3307043/.

[5] Topiwala, Anya. “No Safe Level Of Alcohol Consumption For Brain Health: Observational Cohort Study Of 25,378 UK Biobank Participants”. Medrxiv.Org, 2021, https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.05.10.21256931v1.full.pdf.

[6] Mercadante AA, Tadi P. Neuroanatomy, Gray Matter. [Updated 2020 Jul 31]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553239/

[7] Topiwala, Anya. “No Safe Level Of Alcohol Consumption For Brain Health: Observational Cohort Study Of 25,378 UK Biobank Participants”. Medrxiv.Org, 2021, https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.05.10.21256931v1.full.pdf.

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