Alcohol may offer temporary relief, but over time it can change how your body responds to stress, making it harder to cope without it.

The connection between alcohol and stress is complicated. Alcohol has physical effects that make it seem like stress goes away.

Over time, however, alcohol can change your body’s release of stress hormones. Even when you’re not drinking, your body might have a lower-than-usual threshold to alcohol. This could mean that it takes less alcohol to experience a stress response compared to someone who never drank or who drank less.

There are a number of ways you can cope with stress that don’t involve alcohol, and many of them you can do on your own. At any time, you can also reach out to others for help.

Stress is something you experience in response to an external cause. It may be a one-time event, such as a job interview, or an ongoing event, such as a toxic workplace.

You can also experience stress during a period of life when things may feel less manageable.

Stress is a natural part of the human experience. Everyone responds to stress a bit differently. Those coping methods may have negative or positive effects.

Drinking goes up in response to different kinds of stress, whether during personal experiences such as divorce or community-wide events such as natural disasters, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA).

A 2020 study of adults in the United States found that up to 60% reported drinking more alcohol during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stress was the most common reason for the increase, reported by 45.7% of respondents, compared to increased availability of alcohol (34.4%) and boredom (30.1%).

Although stress may lead to more drinking, the connection between alcohol and stress is quite complicated. A person may feel alcohol reduces stress in the short term. But over time, alcohol can make stress worse.

Alcohol can reduce symptoms of anxiety in some cases. It can act on the reward pathways of the brain, fostering and strengthening the belief that you need alcohol to cope with stress.

This could explain why some people feel that their stress goes down when they drink and why they may want to drink again. As your brain becomes accustomed to higher concentrations of alcohol, it begins to depend on it more to function.

At the same time, alcohol itself can cause stress. It activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis — a major part of the body’s stress response system.

The HPA axis regulates metabolism, the immune system, and the autonomous nervous system to help your body maintain homeostasis (a balanced state) when you encounter a stressor like alcohol. So, even though you may at first feel better when you drink, over time your body might consider the alcohol a stressor and respond.

Alcohol’s ability to increase stress can continue even when you’re not drinking. Long-term alcohol use can change your brain chemistry so that your body releases higher amounts of adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol, according to the NIAA.

These hormone increases can affect how the body perceives stress. A person may respond with more anxiety to a stressful situation compared to someone who never drank or only drank small amounts.

Continued alcohol use can therefore make it more difficult for people to cope, even when they’re not drinking.

Alcohol can also change your perception of stress. Even small stressors can look worse than they are. For example, if you make a mistake at work, you might think you’ll be reprimanded or lose your job, even if there’s a simple fix.

Stress has some common physical and emotional effects. Whether the response is ongoing or brought on by a one-time event, you may experience:

  • tension
  • headaches
  • body aches
  • loss of sleep
  • high blood pressure
  • excessive worry

Although alcohol can have short-term anti-anxiety effects, it can also have negative effects on the body.

When you drink alcohol, you may feel a lack of coordination and an inability to think clearly. Over time, alcohol can lead to long-term damage to major organs, leading to serious health conditions such as:

  • heart: cardiomyopathy, irregular heartbeat, stroke, high blood pressure
  • liver: fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis (scarring), cirrhosis
  • pancreas: pancreatitis (swelling and inflammation of the blood vessels)
  • brain: brain shrinkage, hallucinations, psychosis, nutritional deficiencies that can lead to long-term conditions such as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Long-term alcohol use can also increase your chance of developing certain types of cancer. It can also weaken your immune system, making your body less able to fight infection and disease.

Even if you’ve been turning to alcohol more than you’d like to cope with stress, there are steps you can take to adopt different habits.

Take a break

Recognizing any factors that make your stress go up can help you identify your stressors.

If learning about world events causes you feelings of anxiety, turn off the screens. Limit your intake of news to certain times of the day.

Being able to step back for a time could help you reset and prevent you from getting stuck in a stress cycle.

If your stress or anxiety is related to a long-term stressor such as a traumatic event, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for help. They can provide you with tools and strategies for managing your stress.

Support your physical health

Moderate exercise — such as stretching, yoga, and walking — can help reduce feelings of stress on your body. Mindfulness techniques such as meditation can also help you focus on the present moment.

Eating a balanced, diet of lean meats and fresh fruits and vegetables can also help you feel better overall and relieve stress.

Try to get regular, high quality sleep. While many people use alcohol to help them sleep, this substance can prevent restful sleep, making you feel more sleepy during the day.

Focus on what you enjoy

Try to find a few activities that offer enjoyment. Engaging in these activities can help reduce stress when you might otherwise choose to consume alcohol. This can be anything from sports and outdoor activities to indoor crafts and artwork.

Connect with your community

Consider getting involved with a local faith community or service organization. You can attend services, talks, join clubs, or volunteer. For many people, the chance to break isolation can be a big help in trying to reduce alcohol consumption.

Reach out

Even with your best efforts, stress can still be overwhelming.

If you’re in a crisis, you have options for immediate help. You can:

You can also speak with a friend, family member, counselor, or therapist. There are a number of ways to find help from a mental health professional to better manage stress.

Some people consume more alcohol when they’re stressed. This may make you feel better at first. Over time, however, alcohol can make it harder to cope with stress, even when you’re not drinking.

There are a number of ways to cope with stress that don’t involve alcohol. Focusing on physical health, getting proper sleep, finding activities you enjoy, and taking regular breaks from stressors can all contribute to your improved well-being.

You don’t have to cope with stress on your own. A counselor, therapist, and community organizations may all be able to give additional support.