How do you cope with stress, anxiety, low mood or social phobia? For many, alcohol proves to be a useful aid in relaxing and improving mood. However, alcohol can have a very damaging impact on your mental health. Whilst alcohol’s effects can initially help to settle nerves or get you in the mood for an event, drinking above the recommended safe alcohol guidelines can actually make you feel worse.
The Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines for safe alcohol consumption in the UK stipulates that whether you are male or female, you should consume no more than 14 units of alcohol a week.
After a stressful day at work or looking after the family, many choose to open a bottle of wine or crack open a few beers to relax and unwind before bed. It is easy to lose track of how much you are drinking, especially if you are already feeling stressed.
The recommended safe drinking guidelines are not just there to keep you physically well but also to protect your mental health.
Here we look at why it is important to recognise if alcohol is damaging your mental health and if it is, what you can do to overcome it.
Drinking alcohol helps me cope
You may feel that alcohol helps you to cope with feelings of stress, frustration, agitation and nervousness. In the short term, alcohol’s effects can indeed help to reduce these feelings and improve overall mood. It is a quick and easy fix and its effects are only temporary. Alcohol conveniently provides a false sense of ease and comfort.
The truth is that drinking above the Chief Medical Officers guidelines for safe drinking on a regular basis can, in fact, cause and increase feelings of depression and anxiety. Problem drinking can make things feel a whole lot worse than they actually are.
Firstly, alcohol is a depressant drug. It works by slowing down your brain and depressing your central nervous system. This is why after a few drinks you usually feel more relaxed and less stressed.
Alcohol also affects the part of the brain that controls your inhibitions, so it can also reduce feelings of nervousness and make you feel more confident and outgoing. In reality, taking a drink to cope with unpleasant feelings is a very temporary solution. Once alcohol’s effects have worn off, the negative feelings return and are heightened as a result of being chemically suppressed.
The other negative aspect of drinking to escape uncomfortable feelings is that by suppressing them you are not confronting or dealing with the underlying issues. This can also have a great impact on your mental health. Problems can increase and accumulate as you try to divert from addressing them through the use of alcohol. This makes for more drinking!
So does alcohol actually help you cope? or is it just a temporary diversion? Ask yourself this, only you will know the absolute truth.
Alcohol and mental health
Alcohol unbalances your brain chemistry and affects how your brain’s neurotransmitters communicate. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to feelings of negativity, anxiety, depression and aggression. It can become a vicious cycle of drinking to relieve negative feelings and then drinking more as the negative feelings increase as a result of alcohol.
Many individuals that drink excessively develop problems with their mental health as a consequence. In community alcohol treatment this is referred to as dual diagnosis (which can, in fact, be misleading). True dual diagnosis is where a mental health illness existed prior to the excessive drinking, or continues to exist once the alcohol has been stopped.
Where drinking is excessive or problematic, any mental health symptoms tend to improve or disappear completely without alcohol acting as a catalyst. In order to correctly diagnose and treat a mental health illness, problematic drinking must be addressed first. Only then can a person’s mental health be correctly assessed – without any chemical factors influencing the outcome.
If you are drinking heavily and/or frequently and are suffering from mental health problems, stopping alcohol will most certainly help. This is why in the community NHS always address any substance misuse issues prior to treating mental health disorders.
For an individual who has become addicted to alcohol through trying to cope with poor mental health, stopping alcohol can prove to be extremely difficult if not impossible without the aid of medical intervention. In instances such as this, a full medical alcohol detox and alcohol rehab is recommended.
Signs alcohol is affecting your mood
Drinking excessively over a prolonged period of time can have devastating psychological consequences. Sometimes these consequences cannot be reversed, so it is important to recognise the signs that alcohol is affecting your mood.
If you are suffering from mental health problems and wondering if alcohol could be the cause or making it worse, please lookout for the following signs:
- You feel anxious and agitated in the mornings after drinking
- You suffer from broken sleep or struggle to sleep after drinking alcohol
- You feel increased anxiety in public places or with people who you would normally feel comfortable with
- You regularly feel tired and hungover after drinking and suffer mood swings
- Your mental health has deteriorated as your alcohol consumption has increased
- You struggle to concentrate and motivate yourself
- You prefer to isolate from others
- You suffer from irrational fear and negative thinking
If you feel stopping drinking could improve your mental health then it is important to stop safely. If you are physically dependent on alcohol then you should not attempt to quit suddenly.
Going cold turkey from alcohol dependence can cause life-threatening symptoms to develop and can make you feel like you are losing your mind!
Alcohol addiction is an illness in itself, it requires specialist medical and therapeutic treatment in order to successfully recover. It is always best to check with your GP that it is safe for you to stop alcohol if you are not having at least two alcohol free days a week.
Alternatively, if you know you are physically addicted to alcohol and cannot stop safely yourself, please consider private alcohol rehab.
PCP rehabs specialise in affordable alcohol detox and rehab and also treat dual diagnosis. We treat alcohol addiction and mental health simultaneously. We do this within a safe and supportive environment staffed by qualified professionals 24/7.
The long term impact of excessive drinking on mental health
In the long term, excessive drinking can cause both psychological (mental health illnesses) and physiological (damage to brain tissue and pathways). Those that drink heavily or to harmful levels are particularly at risk of developing long term mental health problems.
Alcohol acts as a catalyst to a number of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and psychosis. It has also been recognised that long term excessive drinking can cause problems with memory and even bring about the onset of dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (wet brain).
Alcohol dependence and binge drinking also delay recovery from any pre-existing or co-existing psychiatric illness. Frequent exposure to large amounts of alcohol changes the brain’s pathways and can easily lead to addiction – A progressive and deadly condition.
If you already have a mental health illness it is recommended that you rigidly stick to the safe drinking guidelines or preferably do not drink at all. This is especially important if you are taking medication for your mental health. Look at alternative ways and means of coping with mental health symptoms. Many find relief through therapy, exercise, prescribed medication and mindfulness meditation.
If you are drinking excessively and your mental health is suffering as a result, it is vital that you seek the correct professional help. Ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away often proves to be a huge mistake, sometimes a fatal one.
For more information on recovery programmes for alcohol abuse and mental health illness, call PCP rehabs today.