Anxiety & Alcohol: How GAD Affects Those With Alcoholism

Kreed Kleinkopf
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October 14, 2020

We all feel anxious from time to time – like when we have an upcoming speech, or when going to a job interview, and so on. Anxiety is a normal part of life. It is your body's way of dealing with stressful situations and can keep you alert or help you perform better. To that end, anxiety is a good thing. However, there are times when the anxiety gets out of hand and starts being a problem. Like when it interferes with daily activities. Problem anxiety tends to be chronic and irrational and may result in or reflect an anxiety disorder. Anxiety and alcohol are a dangerous combination, resulting in a vicious cycle that never ends.

Types of anxiety disorders

There are about 40 million people with an anxiety disorder in America at any given time. Of this number, 1 in 5 reports using alcohol to cope with stress.

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Anxiety can be crippling as a reaction to stress for many. Anxiety can cause both physical and mental symptoms.

Some common examples of anxiety disorders include:

Panic disorder: this anxiety disorder is characterized by the fear of having future attacks and losing control in public. Patients with panic attacks turn to alcohol to calm down or numb their fear of an impending attack. Research shows that alcoholism occurs on 10-40% of those with panic disorders and that 10-20% of panic disorder patients are struggling with addiction.

Post-traumatic stress disorder: Any psychological or physical trauma (like an accident or sexual abuse) that leaves one feeling out of control or powerless can cause PTSD. Many people with PTSD turn to alcohol to numb their pain or gain some control in their lives.

Social anxiety disorder: according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 20% of people who struggle with social anxiety also struggle with alcohol use disorder. This is partly because they drink to try to relieve the stress that comes with social situations.

Specific phobia: those with specific phobias experience intense fear of a situation or thing that poses no immediate threat. Some common examples of phobias are small spaces, heights, and animals.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): is a common anxiety disorder affecting 3.1% or 6.8 million adults in the United States. It's characterized by excessive and persistent worry about several different things - whether its work, family, health, money, etc. – even when there's little or nothing to provoke it.

GAD makes an individual always nervous, tense, and worried about everything. Of course, this is no way to live, so some individuals turn to alcohol to cope with the condition. This article will delve deeper into GAD and how it affects those with alcoholism.

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Many people with GAD turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate their symptoms of anxiety and stress.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and alcohol use

Anxiety disorder affects the central nervous system. It can increase blood flow, accelerate the heart rate, and push the brain into overdrive. Doctors often prescribe CNS depressants like benzodiazepines to treat extreme cases of anxiety. Benzodiazepines reduce GAD's intensity of physiological symptoms, like panic attacks, headaches, muscle tension, restlessness, and insomnia – but so does alcohol (to some extent).

Alcohol is a sedative and depressant. In this way, it has some effects that mirror anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines. That's why patients who cannot access a prescription for their anxiety problem often turn to alcohol to relieve their symptoms. Alcohol use is also common among those who can't afford therapy or are too embarrassed to seek it. They drink up to increase their levels of relaxation and also mitigate stress in their lives.

But the use of alcohol to lower anxiety almost always fails. Anxiety is a mental disorder that can arise from long-term drinking. Substance-induced anxiety can happen in people with other anxiety disorders like GAD. Unfortunately, adding another anxiety only makes the GAD worsen.

Besides, those who depend on alcohol to mask their anxiety problems may start to rely on it to relax and may build a tolerance to the de-stressing effects of alcohol. This makes stress and anxiety even more difficult to cope with.

Alcoholism and GAD

People struggling with anxiety may turn to alcohol to relieve stress. But long-term heavy drinking is also a risk factor for anxiety disorder. This is because alcohol upsets hormones, sleep, and brain function. When the mind and body don't get enough rest, one may feel irritable and on edge. The changes in the brain may also increase the risk for anxiety issues. This is because the brain chemicals – neurotransmitters and serotonin – are responsible for positive mental health.

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Drinking alcohol to cope with stress can only make the symptoms of any anxiety disorder much worse.

And as it turns out, alcohol doesn't just cause anxiety – it can worsen it. A 2017 study indicated higher anxiety levels among individuals with alcohol use disorder than those without when faced with stress. In one review of 63 studies, reducing alcohol intake led to improvements in both anxiety and depression. According to the authors, cutting back on alcohol could enhance one's self-confidence, social functioning, and mental and physical quality of life.

Still on anxiety, there's also the aspect of concern and uneasiness that comes after drinking alcohol. Many heavy drinkers end up panicking as they try to review the things they might have said or done, and what others who were present are thinking of them.

Co-occurring anxiety and alcohol abuse

Studies show a different trend of alcohol use among individuals with a generalized anxiety disorder. Most people with this mental health disorder start drinking excessively around the same time as the onset of anxiety symptoms. And while it still isn't clear why this happens, researchers think that the initial signs are related to alcohol withdrawal. It is also possible that alcohol use presents a mechanism for anxiety and panic disorders to develop.

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If you are struggling with any mental health issue and you have been self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, help from a healthcare professional is highly recommended.

Not only does drinking lead to anxiety and anxiety lead to drinking, the two trigger each other into an unending cycle. Anxiety makes an individual start drinking. This only makes the anxiety worse. So they drink more to feel better but end up with even worse anxiety and so on.

The more alcohol one takes, the more tolerant they become. Over time, they may need to drink more alcohol to achieve the same effects. In the long run, this may negatively affect their mental health, leading to higher levels of depression and anxiety after drinking.

Treating addiction to alcoholism and anxiety

Patients are highly discouraged from trying to treat anxiety or detox from alcohol without help from a healthcare professional. The process needs professional oversight to help manage their conditions. There are many effective treatments for alcohol and anxiety disorders, including talk therapy, individual/group therapy, prescribed medications, or a blend of these methods. Patients should also join support groups for continued support throughout their recovery.

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