Drinking alcohol may make you feel relaxed and cheerful for a while. In some cases, though, it could affect your mood in the long run.
You may sometimes feel that drinking alcohol helps you handle everyday stresses.
But what if you start relying on alcohol as a coping mechanism or an emotional release? Learning to identify possible red flags in your relationship with alcohol may prevent you from leaning on it to feel better or using it as a crutch.
If you’ve heard the term “emotional eating,” then you may be familiar with the idea of consuming comfort foods to cope and take the edge off.
Emotional drinking is similar.
People drink alcohol for various reasons. Some are for cultural reasons, but others drink to manage:
Some people may feel that alcohol temporarily numbs emotional pain. But alcohol cannot heal it.
Alcohol slows the central nervous system, which may help you feel relaxed in the moment, says Dr. John Mendelson, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco.
“Alcohol floods the brain with dopamine, creating feelings of euphoria. It also inhibits judgment and memory. Together, these effects can temporarily relieve feelings like sadness and stress,” he explains.
There’s an emphasis on the word “temporarily,” though.
“You may experience momentary relief from emotional pain when you drink alcohol. For a few minutes or hours, the burden of your grief could feel a bit lighter,” Mendelson explains. “But when the alcohol wears off, and the negative emotions come rushing back, you may feel even worse than you did before.”
A coping mechanism is a thought pattern or behavior that helps you manage difficult emotions, such as stress, anxiety, depression, or grief.
Some coping mechanisms — journaling, deep breathing, or taking nature walks — can help you process pain or develop skills to overcome it.
But sometimes, a coping mechanism slides into unhealthy territory if it:
- prevents you from processing a challenge
- causes more distress
- impacts your health
Persistently drinking alcohol during emotional pain or stress may cause the opposite effect.
It comes down to the balance of neurotransmitters in your brain, says Dr. Joseph Volpicelli, executive director at the Institute of Addiction Medicine in Pennsylvania.
Alcohol increases your levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect. Your brain responds to this increase by making more glutamate, increasing brain activity.
“As alcohol levels fall and GABA levels fall, the brain stays hyperactive from the extra glutamate activity,” Volpicelli explains. This could heighten symptoms such as anxiety.
“To feel better, some people will drink alcohol the next day,” he adds. “Unfortunately, drinking alcohol to take away anxiety leads to a vicious cycle, in which drinking may lead you to want to drink more.”
A glass of wine a day?
“In the long run, alcohol, which has a depressant effect on your nervous system, can cause symptoms consistent with major or clinical depression,” says Mendelson.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the desire to stop drinking, but you can’t despite possible negative consequences.
Some symptoms include:
- feeling distress about your relationship with alcohol
- difficulty limiting your number of drinks
- forgoing regular activities to drink
- hiding how much or how often you drink from loved ones
- spending a great deal of time thinking about or procuring alcohol
- continuing to drink despite adverse impacts on your health, to work, school, relationships, or other areas of your life
Who is more likely to develop alcohol use disorder?
According to the
- you began drinking before age 15 years old
- other family members live with substance use disorder
- you are diagnosed with a mental health condition
- you have a history of trauma
Everyone’s connection to alcohol is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to address that relationship.
If you find yourself leaning on alcohol to cope with emotional challenges, you may want to consider reaching out for help.
Stopping alcohol cold turkey could lead to withdrawal symptoms and other adverse effects. A health professional can help in the most beneficial way for you.
In some cases, this could involve inpatient care. In other instances, you can go through outpatient care but stay at home.
“If you are not sure if you have alcohol use disorder, you may want to have a period of sobriety to see if you feel better without alcohol, such as a Dry January,” says Volpicelli.
Still, professional support is helpful when treating AUD.
If you experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking alcohol, you may want to consider a medical environment where you can receive the support of mental health professionals. In this case, inpatient treatment may be right for you.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) has a treatment locator that you may find useful.
Working with a therapist in a safe, nonjudgmental space might help you uncover why you feel you need to drink.
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- dialetical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- assertive community treatment (ACT)
As you develop more coping skills to face emotional or everyday challenges, you may be less likely to use alcohol for this purpose.
Family therapy can help create a safe “container” where you can examine how your closest relationships are impacting your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — including alcohol. A therapist can also help improve the group’s communication skills.
They say there’s power in numbers. If you’re open to it, there are several support groups geared toward those who live with substance use, either online or in person.
If possible, consider activities that promote relaxation and balance because they may provide you with a sense of calm or confidence.
Some ideas include:
If you tend to drink alcohol every time you feel stressed or sad, you may want to further explore your relationship with it.
If you use alcohol as a coping mechanism, relying entirely on it may cause you to experience adverse effects in the long run.
If you suspect you may have developed alcohol use disorder, treatment is available and effective.
There are many types of support, including different types of cessation therapies, medications, and support groups. If one doesn’t work for you, you can consider other options.
You may also find it useful to read about the experiences of others. Some books on related topics include:
- “Quit Drinking Without Willpower: Be a Happy Nondrinker” by Allen Carr
- “The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober” by Catherine Gray
- “Alcohol Lied to Me: The Intelligent Way to Escape Alcohol Addiction” by Craig Beck
- “Alcohol Explained” by William Porter
- “Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol” by Holly Whitaker
You don’t have to face AUD alone. Plenty of help is available.