Research shows that different people drink for different reasons. Alcohol use has many motivations, and isn’t always linked to anxiousness.
Drinking and anxiety, however, are often connected. Alcohol targets a neurotransmitter in the brain called “GABA.” GABA serves in inhibitory function, meaning it slows the firing of our nervous system. When alcohol activates GABA, it causes symptoms like sedation, muscle relaxation, and decreased coordination.
And it also has an anxiety-reducing – or “anxiolytic” – effect. Some folks encounter this calming effect when they first start drinking, and find it reinforcing (i.e., like it a lot). In this case, alcohol and anxiety are connected from the beginning.
But there’s another incarnation of the alcohol/anxiety relationship. Alcohol slows (or inhibits) our nervous system. And our body – a huge fan of balance – wants to get back to normal quickly. To make this happen, it speeds up (or activates) our nervous system past its baseline level in an attempt to overcompensate.
In the context of alcohol use, then, what goes down must go up:
- Say we normally roll along at a steady 55 MPH. Drinking decreases our speed to 35 MPH, but our body wants to return to the speed limit.
- It steps hard on the gas to make this adjustment, cranking us past the usual level. Instead of returning to 55 MPH, in other words, we’re revved to 75 MPH.
- Our nervous system temporarily becomes more activated than it was before we drank. And an activated nervous system increases the chances that anxiety will make an appearance.
As a result, many people experience anxiousness as an after effect of drinking…which can play a major role in alcohol dependence (i.e., “alcoholism”).
As a hypothetical example, imagine that Sully starts drinking in college for non-anxiety reasons. Over time, however, his hangovers are increasingly accompanied by anxiety. And he drinks more and more to avoid it (i.e., drink → feel anxious the next day → drink to feel less anxious → repeat).
For obvious reasons – physiologically, psychologically, and otherwise – using booze to manage anxiousness is a bad idea. If you notice anxiety worsening the day after drinking, consider making changes. If you regularly use alcohol to avoid anxiety, seriously consider seeking professional help. Not all anxiety swamps stand between us and life fulfillment…and we need’t trudge through those that don’t!
Dylan M. Kollman, PhD is a licensed psychologist and director of The Anxiety Institute of Connecticut. He is also the author of The Anxiety Dilemma: What It Is and What You Can Do About It, with foreword by psychologist David H. Barlow. Dr. Kollman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his blog can be viewed at www.realanxietysolutions.com/blog.