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Alcohol and Stress: What You Need To Know

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During any stressful time, it’s common to look for a way to ease the pressure. Whether it’s the fear and uncertainty of something like the COVID-19 pandemic, or the daily pressures of a difficult job, we all sometimes experience stress that feels hard to manage. Alcohol can feel like a good way to take the edge off, and unwind.

Unfortunately, alcohol’s positive effects on stress turn out to be a bit of an illusion. Studies show that drinking can actually make it harder for your body to rebalance after a stressful event. Alcohol can also make you more susceptible to stress in the long term, while stress hormones can likewise make you more vulnerable to alcohol dependence.

So if you’ve noticed yourself drinking more during a stressful period, you aren’t alone. But it’s important to stay aware of the connection between stress and alcohol use, and how it may be affecting you. Below, we’ll outline how alcohol and stress interact, alternative ways of dealing with stress, and some options to help you cut back if you feel that you’re drinking too much.

What Causes Stress

man standing in forest with headache, alcohol and stress
Photo by Francisco Moreno on Unsplash

Stress is the body’s natural response to situations that appear dangerous or threatening. It can be caused by a variety of different life events, from the mundane to the catastrophic. The connecting factor is that the situation feels overwhelming, and may require some extra energy or effort to overcome. Here, our biology tries to help us out, by giving us that extra push.

How Stress Works

When confronted with a perceived threat, our whole system shifts into “fight-or-flight” mode. This involves a whole slew of brain chemicals and hormones that get us prepared, including one called cortisol. Cortisol helps our metabolism shift into high gear, increasing blood sugar levels and speeding up the conversion of fat and protein into energy. This gives us the burst of strength we need to overcome the challenge. When the threat passes, our systems should return to normal.

How long this lasts, however, varies based on an individual’s physical system, their psychology, the type and severity of the stress, and a wide array of other factors. In other words, like most aspects of the human system, stress is complicated. There are times when it saves our lives, and there are also times when it becomes chronic, or maladaptive.

4 Common Types of Stress

Researchers have placed most forms of stress into four categories:

  • General-life stress: This can include changes in your living situation, employment, or relationships. It also includes general stress related to work, school, or conflict with others in your daily life.
  • Catastrophic Stress: Major natural disasters, acts of terrorism, war, social upheaval, epidemics, and all other catastrophes that cause acute stress and alter the way we live.
  • Childhood Stress: Neglect, abuse, bullying, family dysfunction, or any form of emotional, physical, or sexual trauma during one’s formative years
  • Minority Stress: Any form of discrimination or violence based on one’s racial identity, gender, sexuality, or national origin.

To this we should also add post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is particularly common in people returning from military service.

Each person reacts differently to these forms of stress. That said, each category has been linked to increased drinking, and in most cases, increased likelihood of alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Why People Drink To Manage Stress

Put simply, drinking alcohol often makes people feel better in the moment. Alcohol causes the body to release endorphins, and can temporarily calm your central nervous system. This is why many people have a “nightcap” before bed, or drink a glass or two after work. Alcohol can also function as a distraction, or a way to “blow off steam.” Hence the stereotype around binge drinking with friends on a Friday to celebrate the weekend.

Drinking can also function as a form of self-medication, or a coping mechanism, when mental health support isn’t readily available. While alcohol often makes issues like anxiety and depression worse in the long run, it can be soothing in the short term. For those with family histories of alcoholism, or those with a past history of heavy drinking, this can be especially tempting.

Why Stress and Alcohol are a Bad Combination

While drinking can seem like it’s easing your stress in the moment, it often makes the problem worse long-term. Alcohol interferes with your brain chemistry, making it harder for your body to return to normal after a stress response. And regular drinking can actually make you more vulnerable to stress, setting up a feedback cycle which can lead to dependence, or AUD.

Alcohol, Stress, and Your Body Chemistry

Part of the issue lies with alcohol’s relationship to the stress hormone cortisol. While there is some evidence that alcohol can actually reduce your cortisol response in stressful situations, it also appears to make those stress responses last longer.

Cortisol also appears to reduce people’s ability to experience pleasure, while biasing them towards habit-based learning. This means that if you are stressed-out, you may need to drink more to feel the same effect. It also means that your brain is more susceptible to developing habits around drinking when you have elevated stress levels.

Next, there is the fact that drinking itself is stressful for the body. This can compound the stress you’re already experiencing, and make it harder for your body to return to baseline. Over time, this can force your body to choose a new, less functional “normal,” based on the effects of alcohol.

Not only can this make you more dependent on alcohol, it can also change how your body reacts to stress long-term. In a study comparing social drinkers and abstinent alcoholics, the abstinent former drinkers showed a more severe response to stress than their peers. In other words, heavy drinking had a lasting impact on their stress-related brain chemistry, even after they quit drinking.

Stress and Alcohol Use Disorder

The evidence supports some connection between stress and alcohol use disorder. As discussed above, most categories of stress, including general-life stress, childhood stress, and minority stress, have been linked to increased AUD. This is particularly true for men: One study found that men who experienced at least six stressful incidents were 2.5 times more likely to develop AUD than women who had a similar experience.

Research also shows that people with a history of alcohol addiction are more likely to drink to cope with stressful events in the future. In fact, a common cause of relapse is drinking to deal with the stress of alcohol withdrawal itself.

Finally, there are the ways in which excessive drinking can make stressful events more likely to happen. Trouble with family, work, or the law can all be major stress triggers, and can all be caused by alcohol abuse.

In other words, drinking and stress can form a vicious cycle, each making the other worse. While each person is different, if you find yourself drinking more to cope with stress, it may be a good idea to cut back sooner rather than later.

What Can I Do To Manage Stress Without Drinking?

flower on water, managing alcohol and stress
Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

All of the above may seem dire. But in reality, like most things, it’s a matter of balance. Moderate drinking may not be harmful, so long as you stay within healthy limits. What matters most is developing stress management habits that support your overall well-being. There are a number of healthy ways of dealing with stress during difficult times. Also, if you’re struggling to cut back on alcohol, there are now convenient ways to do so from home.

Tips for Healthy Stress Management

If you’re looking for ways to keep stress levels under control during a trying period, these five strategies may help you manage:

  • Set boundaries: Say no to things that place an extra burden on you, and carve out time for self-care.
  • Take good care of your overall health: No matter what you’re going through, find ways to eat healthy, get the rest you need, and exercise.
  • Practice deep breathing or meditation: When you feel stressed, pause and breathe deeply for a few minutes. You might also want to try meditation, or a mindfulness app to help you develop this skill.
  • Develop positive self-talk: People with a positive outlook often bounce back from stress more quickly. Practice telling yourself encouraging things on a regular basis.
  • Seek help when you need it: We’re all human, and sometimes we need support. Reach out to friends and loved ones to talk, and consider finding a therapist you can trust.

Help for Stress and Alcohol Use

If you’re having a hard time controlling your alcohol consumption in stressful times, you’re not alone. Fortunately, there are many ways to find help—whether you’d like to quit, or simply cut back. These include smartphone apps that can help you control or quit drinking from home. Online meetings are also becoming more common—both secular and 12 step-based.

Finally, you can now access comprehensive alcohol rehab right from your smartphone. Ria Health’s telemedicine program offers prescription medications, regular coaching meetings, digital tools, and online support groups, all through a convenient app. If you’re looking for a way to manage stress-drinking without disrupting your daily life, get in touch with us today, or learn more about how it works.

Summary of Stress and Alcohol Use

Many people turn to alcohol to cope with stressful times. However, evidence shows that drinking actually makes stress worse in the long run. Fortunately, there are ways of managing stress that don’t involve alcohol, and ways of cutting back without putting your life on hold.

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