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Alcohol and mental health

Alcohol and mental health

12 Aug 2022

Source: Mental Health Foundation 2022 

Alcohol and mental health are closely linked. Drinking too much can affect your wellbeing. Some people may drink to try to relieve the symptoms of mental ill-health.

People drink for a wide range of reasons: to celebrate, socialise, commiserate or drown our sorrows. We may drink to try and change our mood: to feel more relaxed, courageous or confident. However, the effect of alcohol is only temporary. As it wears off, we often feel worse because of how alcohol withdrawal affects our brain and body.

You may feel like alcohol is your coping mechanism: a way to deal with depression, stress, anxiety or other difficult feelings. You might be nervous about what life would be like if you stopped drinking or cut back. But relying on alcohol to manage your mental wellbeing can become a problem in itself. There’s no shame in asking for help and exploring what a new relationship with alcohol could look like.

How alcohol affects your brain

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in your brain and affect your feelings, thoughts and behaviour.

Alcohol affects the part of your brain that controls inhibition, so after a drink or two, you may feel relaxed, less anxious and more confident. But these effects quickly wear off. The chemical changes in your brain can soon lead to more negative feelings such as anger, depression or anxiety taking over – regardless of the mood you’re in.

Alcohol also slows down how your brain processes information, making it harder to work out what you’re really feeling and the possible consequences of your actions.

In the long-term, alcohol uses up and reduces the amount of neurotransmitters in our brains, but we need a certain level to ward off anxiety and depression. This can make you want to drink more to relieve these difficult feelings – which can start a cycle of dependence.

How alcohol affects your body

In the short-term, drinking too much can lead to alcohol poisoning, sleep problems, an upset stomach, bloating and migraines. It may make you behave recklessly or aggressively, have an accident or become the victim of violence.

Drinking a lot for many years will take its toll on your body. Long-term alcohol misuse increases your risk of serious health conditions including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, liver disease and cancer. It can lead to social problems such as relationship break-ups, unemployment, financial difficulties and homelessness.

Dealing with physical health problemsdebt and housing issues can all affect your mental health.

Alcohol and mental health

Alcohol problems and mental ill health are closely linked. 

Research shows people who drink a lot of alcohol are more likely to develop mental health problems. It’s also true that people with severe mental ill health are more likely to have alcohol problems. This may be because they ‘self-medicate’, meaning they drink to deal with difficult feelings or symptoms.

Alcohol and depression

Regular heavy drinking is linked to symptoms of depression. Often, people with depression who drink alcohol will find they start to feel better within the first few weeks of stopping drinking. If you try this and feel better, it’s likely the alcohol was causing your depression. If your symptoms of depression continue, speak to your GP for help.

It’s generally not recommended to drink if you’re taking antidepressants. Alcohol can make depression worse and increase the side-effects of some antidepressants. If you’re trying to cut down or stop drinking, research shows some antidepressants can increase your risk of relapsing. The NHS website has more information on alcohol and antidepressants.

Alcohol and anxiety

If you experience anxiety, alcohol can give you a very short-lived feeling of relaxation – but this quickly disappears. If you rely on alcohol to cover your anxiety, you may soon find yourself drinking more and more to relax. Over time, this can lead to alcohol dependence.

You may also find a hangover makes your anxiety worse.

If you use alcohol to unwind, think about other ways you can find to relax: meditation, yoga, exercise or making time for things you enjoy.