It’s reported that around a quarter of people who are alcohol dependent are receiving medication for mental health symptoms. What’s interesting to keep in mind is that there are many people who go unreported. The link between alcohol and mental health is likely to be higher than statistics show.
Alcohol use impacts the physical brain and body as well as mental health. Understanding how this substance works reveals the whys and how.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Alcohol is a psychoactive substance. As such it directly changes how the brain works. In terms of substance effects, it’s a depressant that impacts the functioning of the brain and its neurotransmitters.
This can have dramatic effects and implications on thoughts and behaviours in both the present and long-term.
Whether a person drinks a small amount or has heavy drinking levels, alcohol especially alters the GABA amino acid.
When GABA is released, it helps a person to feel relaxed. Drinking alcohol causes a release of this amino acid and in the initial moments, people feel a reduction in anxiety levels. It lowers inhibitions and increases confidence.
Long-term, regular alcohol consumption reduces the brain’s level of neurotransmitters that are associated with positive moods.
In the case of a person having alcohol use disorder or unhealthy use, dysregulated brain chemicals lead to withdrawal when not drinking. The brain begins to shut down and a person can go into seizure.
The Physical Impact of Alcohol on the Body
Depending on a person’s individual characteristics, body weight and mass, as well as tolerance to alcohol, the substance has various effects.
Many people have experienced a reaction to an alcohol intake that has been too much for their body to metabolise and excrete quickly. This results in alcohol poisoning which is characterised by a sensation of “spinning” and dizziness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
As well as this, alcohol leads to a bloated stomach, disrupted sleep, feelings of anxiety and depression.
The loss of inhibitions and the alteration in mood might also lead to aggression and acts of violence. Of course, this can cause physical injury to the body as well.
Mental Health and Alcohol Use
It’s commonly acknowledged in health care settings that alcohol use is linked to mental health conditions. It’s especially associated with anxiety and depression.
People in medical and addiction fields often refer to a dual diagnosis when this occurs.
Research shows that it’s difficult to assess “psychiatric complaints” of people with severe alcohol use.
The reason for this is that it’s hard to get to the bottom of. People drink to ease mental health symptoms in an act known as self-medicating. At the same time, drinking alcohol regularly leads to mental health conditions. Habitually, it’s difficult to see which the root condition is.
1. Alcohol and Psychosis
Heavy alcohol use can lead to psychosis. Hallucinations are also a symptom during alcohol detox. This, of course, can be very distressing for the person experiencing this. With medical support and the right medication, these symptoms usually settle or disappear after a detox period.
2. Alcohol, Self-harm, and Suicide
Drinking alcohol in a problematic way, whether binging or frequently, is linked to self-harm and suicide attempts.
As well affecting mood and causing emotional dysregulation, it lowers inhibitions and impulsive behaviours which can culminate in risk to self.
If you or someone you love is at immediate risk of harm, please contact emergency services on 999 or The Samaritans.
Alcohol: What is The Long-Term Effects
There are many severe long-term physical effects of alcohol use. When people have moderate to severe alcohol addictions, it can lead to heart disease, liver disease, cancer (including breast, bowel, mouth, and liver), stroke, and impacts the immune system making individuals more susceptible to illnesses.
Psychological effects include the development of psychological cravings, alcohol-induced dementia, as well depression, anxiety, and psychosis.
As well as this, problematic substance use can lead to issues at work, unemployment and financial strain. There are, of course, heartbreaking effects on families as the addiction causes people to lie, manipulate, and put emotional strain on family dynamics.
Becoming dependent on alcohol
In worst case scenarios, alcohol dependency develops when people drink frequently. What happens is that the brain comes to rely on the presence and influence of alcohol to function as it would “normally”. Without a drink, delirium tremens occurs which is characterised by shaking, nausea and sickness, and seizures.
The NHS advises not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. These units are best spread across the week rather than consumed in a binge-drinking way. Drinking more than this amount and using alcohol in unhealthy ways (i.e. as a stress reliever) is reason enough to seek professional help.
The Link Between Alcohol and Depression
Alcohol use disorder and depression are linked. There are physiological reasons for this. Understanding a bit about how the brain works makes it clearer as to why.
As well as the GABA amino acid mentioned above, alcohol also alters the chemical balance of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. These are commonly referred to as the “happy chemicals” that regulate feelings of relaxation, pleasure, and positive moods.
When a person drinks, alcohol changes the balance of these chemicals as well as hormonal balance. This is why people experience hangovers and low moods after drinking. Long-term, there’s a huge impact on emotional regulation.
It’s important to keep in mind that for people who take anti-depressants, alcohol can cause serious side effects and drinking should really be avoided.
What are the Symptoms of Depression?
- Ongoing low mood and/or feelings of sadness
- Reduced interest in usual hobbies
- Loss of motivation
- Feeling hopeless
- Lowered sex drive
- Disrupted sleep – insomnia is common
If you’re concerned you or someone you love has depression, it’s advisable to seek help from your local GP or from a trained professional at a private practice (i.e. a psychotherapist).
Alcohol and anxiety
While alcohol causes people to feel relaxed initially, drinking can actually lead to anxiety. It might be short-term after a drink, or for regular drinkers, anxiety can become a serious issue. Alcohol has physiological effects on the body.
It affects the cardiovascular system, metabolism and blood sugar levels which can cause heart palpitations, dizziness, muscle weakness, and nervousness. As well as this, it causes sleep disturbances.
Symptoms of Anxiety
- Light-headedness, dizziness
- Heart palpitations, or fast, thumping heart
- Feeling restless
- Fast, shallow breathing
- Aches and pains
- Feelings of dread and fear
- Low mood, ruminating thoughts
As in the instance of depression, if you’re concerned you or someone you love has anxiety, it’s advisable to seek help from your local GP or from a trained professional at a private practice (i.e. a psychotherapist).
What is ‘Hangxiety’?
As mentioned, alcohol causes a release of dopamine and serotonin and stimulates GABA receptors. After this flood of happy chemicals, there’s a natural depletion in the system.
The chemicals that cause calm and elevated moods are no longer present meaning anxiety can rebound vigorously.
With this, as well, it’s common for people to experience feelings of regret, disappointment, embarrassment, shame, and worry.
There might be a fear or feeling of having said or done something regrettable.
These psychological feelings alongside physical ones such as a tremor, dehydration dizziness fatigue nausea, muscle weakness, and feeling sensitive to sound and light have been coined “Hangxiety”; a combination of hangover and anxiety.
Healthy Ways to Manage Mood and Relax
It’s important to think about what it is that leads people to drink alcohol in the first place. Often, people drink to unwind and relax, to relieve tension.
Sadly, it’s this type of alcohol use, in particular, that can lead to problematic use.
Seeking other ways to unwind and relax is essential. Having healthy coping strategies helps people to avoid alcohol use disorders.
Other ways to relax:
- Listening to relaxing music
- Approaching cooking as a meditative act where you slow down and enjoy the experience
- Exercise. This causes a natural dopamine release. Some prefer exercise that connects the mind and body (i.e. yoga and tai chi), others like exercise that causes the heart to pump (i.e. cycling or tennis)
- Exploring nature
- Regular cold-water exposure
- Breathwork exercises
- Using creativity and/or play as a way to unwind
Where to Go for Help for Problematic Drinking
If you or someone you love has developed problematic alcohol use, there are a number of places you can go to for help.
- Alcoholics Anonymous run local groups across the world as well as online. The focus is on social connection and addressing addiction through the disease lens.
- Al-Anon and AdFam offer support for family members who are impacted by a loved one’s alcohol use
- The NHS offers local drug and alcohol services where there are regular meetings and various substance reduction activities to access
- Private alcohol rehab clinics available via organisations like Rehab Recovery or Talk to Frank to support people to quit drinking
Summing Things Up
Alcohol has serious effects on brain functioning leading to dysregulation of emotions and mental health.
There’s no denying that drinking leads to depression and anxiety. Frequent alcohol use can lead to a dual diagnosis of alcohol addiction as well as the mental health condition. It’s useful to find healthy ways of coping in order to manage mental health.
Where problematic drinking develops, it’s important to seek help. Professional support equips individuals to manage any unhealthy habits that have developed and to form new, healthy ones.