Am I at Risk of Alcohol Abuse If I Only Drink When I’m Anxious?

While opiate addictions may be front and center in today’s headlines, alcohol continues to rank number one as the most commonly abused substance. Unlike most other illicit substances, alcohol’s easy accessibility and overall widespread acceptance within American culture leaves those most susceptible to alcohol abuse to fend for themselves. Under these conditions, getting in the habit of drinking when anxious or stressed can easily open the door for alcohol abuse problems to develop. If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol abuse or addiction, call for a free treatment referral.

Like most any addictive substance, alcohol interferes with the body’s natural chemical systems. Periods of anxiety and stress also disrupt normal chemical processes. When combined, drinking and anxiety create the perfect backdrop for alcohol abuse behaviors to form. Knowing what signs to watch out for can help you take steps to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

Alcohol’s Effects in the Brain

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol may relieve anxiety temporarily, but actually worsens this issue over time.

Alcohol targets two chemical processes in the brain: GABA and glutamate production. Whereas GABA works to regulate cell activity levels, glutamate regulates the brain’s electrical activity. In effect, alcohol increases GABA levels while decreasing glutamate output, which produces an overall slowing effect on brain functioning, according to Scripps Research Institute.

While the occasional drink has little to no effect on the brain’s functional capacity, anytime a pattern of drinking starts to develop, repeated interference with the brain’s normal chemical processes can warp the brain’s chemical system over time. In effect, patterns of drinking set the stage for an alcohol abuse problem to develop.

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The Body’s Stress/Anxiety Response

Like alcohol, stress and anxiety cause changes within the brain’s chemical system. The body’s hormone system also kicks in when anxiety levels increase. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism, the body’s stress response speeds up most every major system, causing:

  • Increases in heart rate
  • Increases in breathing rate
  • Sweat response
  • Increase in blood circulation rates

When a person has the coping skills needed to manage stressful circumstances and reduce anxiety levels, the body will return back to normal. The risk of engaging in alcohol abuse behaviors increases when healthy coping skills are lacking.

How to Spot Early Signs of an Alcohol Abuse Disorder

The Relationship between Anxiety and Alcohol Abuse

While alcohol’s initial effects may help to relieve feelings of anxiety, once its effects wear off the brain is left to self-correct in terms resetting electrical and cell activity levels to normal. Over time, alcohol’s effects weaken the brain’s regulatory capacity making it increasingly difficult to resume normal functioning.

According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, getting into a habit of drinking when feeling anxious actually increases the brain’s anxiety response over time. When this happens, a person has to drink larger quantities of alcohol to experience the same desired effects. Under these conditions, the risk of alcohol abuse runs incredibly high.

Treatment Considerations

While it may seem harmless enough, using alcohol to gain relief from feelings of anxiousness can quickly turn into a vicious cycle of alcohol abuse over time. When left untreated, the risk of developing alcohol addiction on top of a full-blown anxiety disorder increases exponentially.

If you suspect you or someone you know struggles with alcohol abuse and have more questions, or need help finding treatment that meets your needs, please don’t hesitate to call our toll-free helpline at to speak with one of our addictions specialists.

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