One of the most common beliefs we hold is that we drink to relieve stress and anxiety. Does alcohol actually relax us? Is it helping?
“Alcohol doesn’t permit one to do things better but instead causes us to be less ashamed of doing things poorly.”
– W. Osler
I Drink To Relieve Stress and Anxiety
You have observed people saying they need a drink after a long day. You have also poured yourself a drink to take the edge off, and your experience showed it did take the edge off your stress and anxiety. It was easy to assume alcohol was a stress reliever and quieted your anxiety. Eventually, you came to the conclusion that you drink to relieve stress and anxiety.
Let’s consider reality:
Alcohol Relieves My Stress and Anxiety
I started as a social drinker, but during the last five years, I used it as a crutch to relax. Ironically, drinking made my life much more stressful. My health was affected. I compounded the natural stress of my job with the anxiety of wondering what stupid comment I’d made to whom during nights of drinking. Glass by glass I poured stress into my life, all the while deluding myself into believing alcohol helped me relax.
What is true relaxation? It is having no aggravations, nothing to irk or annoy you. How can alcohol remove aggravations from your life? It does not fix the annoyances but temporarily dulls the symptoms. And guess what? As you build a tolerance, the actual effect of alcohol decreases, and your need for it increases. Soon the aggravations are barely muted, and you are addicted. Of course, addiction is a much bigger stressor than the stressors you drank to remove. You’ve created a mental craving for alcohol that did not exist before, one that you now have to either feed (with more alcohol) or deprive.
Wanting something you shouldn’t have does nothing to relax you; it creates a mental divide inside your mind, which is the very definition of aggravation. It’s the opposite of relaxation. Drinking to treat your problems ensures you will not address the true source of your discontent or aggravation. It ensures you will remain trapped, treating your symptoms of stress rather than its cause. Things go from bad to worse when you add alcohol dependence to the mix.
Losing My Spark
A few years ago in Windsor, England, I stepped off the stage after speaking to about seventy people. I usually know I’ve nailed it, and this time I wasn’t so sure. Something felt wrong. I knew I was not responding to the audience well, and they were not responding to me. Sure enough, a friend took me aside to ask what was wrong. He was, as good friends are, honest with me, saying I had lost my spark. I was not the animated, funny, and relatable communicator I used to be. He was right and I burst into tears. I didn’t understand what was wrong, why I was so on edge, but I knew I wanted a drink to calm my nerves. Alcohol caused a sharp decline in my speaking abilities. Yet at the moment I thought alcohol was my only friend. What a nightmarish trap.
Calming My Nerves
I had that drink to “calm my nerves,” but I was so stressed and miserable it didn’t help. That drink to relieve my stress and anxiety did nothing – Heavy drinking and lack of sleep were why I had lost my spark in the first place. When I reflect now on why I was such a mess, there was no real reason. While my career can be stressful, I thrive on a fast pace and constant change. I am in my element when I am responsible for large budgets and international teams. I was never in a life-or-death situation. All my stress came from my drive to improve and excel. Drinking to dull my stress made it worse.
Now that I no longer administer myself a powerful poison on a regular basis, I can handle all sorts of situations, even the most daunting. Are they all easy? Of course not. Do I feel stress? Of course. But the stress is never multiplied because I don’t have the energy, self-confidence, or courage to deal with the issue at hand. Alcohol seemed to give me an easy way out. Have a drink, deaden my senses, and let the stress seep from my mind. But it worsened every situation because I drank instead of facing the problems head-on.
We confuse stress and responsibility.
I used to believe this was stress, and I needed alcohol to unwind. I admit, some of it is stress, but most of it is the responsibility of my role. Now I see that I thrive when I am pushed. I crave speed, with my job, my family, and the other projects I am involved in. I have been told, when I was especially on edge, to slow down, but slowing down does not make me happy. It’s not the pace that is the problem; the problem is poisoning my body and mind so that I am physically unable to keep up with the life I want to live.
Identifying The Problem
Imagine getting into the hot tub after a tough workout on a hot summer day. That would probably not feel good. A chilly and refreshing shower would be better. In order to relax, we need to figure out why we are not relaxed and address the problem. If we are tired, we sleep. If we are cold, we start a fire or put on a sweater. When our muscles ache, we take a bath. If we are thirsty, we drink, hungry, we eat. You get the picture.
If I am stressed because I forgot to return an important phone call, I can either make the call or write myself a note to ensure I do it when I am able. This will relieve my stress. If I am experiencing stress because of a deadline, I can schedule a time to work on the project or just get to work. The most thorough road to relaxation is removing the specific irritation that is causing you stress.
You achieve relaxation by removing the source of discontent. Alcohol, by definition, cannot relax you. Now you may wonder about the numbing effects of alcohol. Surely alcohol would help numb pain. Yes, alcohol will numb your brain and your senses. It will numb you in such a fashion that, if you drink enough, it will render you unconscious. And unconsciousness will relieve your pain.
But saying this is a good idea is like saying it’s a good idea to go under the guillotine because you have a migraine. There are better solutions.
A 2012 study proved alcohol makes you less capable of dealing with stress and anxiety. Researchers gave mice doses of alcohol for a month, then ran tests to compare the mice who had been drinking with normal mice. The mice were put in stressful situations to measure their reactions. Alcohol literally rewired the mice’s brains to make them unable to deal with anxiety and stress. Many find this shocking, but if you drink regularly you probably already know this is true.
Alcohol, Stress, and Anxiety
So why do we believe alcohol helps with stress and anxiety? Because it deadens your senses, it can make you oblivious to your stressors even when it’s worsening them. You already know that when you sober up, unless you’ve done something to actually improve the situation, your stress remains.
Real relaxation is having no distress. It is a feeling you can never achieve with a drug.
If you are truly happy and relaxed, you have no need or desire to change your state of mind. Looking back, I see that my constant need to drink to relax was really proof that alcohol was not relaxing me. If alcohol helped me achieve relaxation, wouldn’t it follow that I wouldn’t need as much of it? If alcohol cured my stress, wouldn’t I need less, not more, of it over time? No, alcohol does not relax you. It does not fix the stress in your life. Rather, it inebriates you, which covers the pain for a short amount of time. As soon as it wears off, your stress returns and, over time, multiply. Yet you continue to drink to relieve stress and anxiety.
The Opposite of Relief: What Happens in Your Brain
So if alcohol doesn’t relax you, what does it do? Quite simply, alcohol slows down your brain function. It does this by affecting two neurotransmitters (chemicals that transmit signals between brain cells): glutamate and GABA. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that increases brain activity levels and energy. Alcohol suppresses the release of glutamate, resulting in a slowdown along your brain’s neural highways. You literally think more slowly. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Inhibitory neurotransmitters reduce energy and slow down activity. Alcohol increases GABA production in the brain, resulting in sedation, diminished thinking, reduced ability to reason, slowed speech, diminished reaction time, and slower movement.
What Science Says
When drinking, science shows that you also alter brain chemicals that increase depression. Your brain counteracts the artificial stimulation of your brain’s pleasure centers, diminishing until the illusion of pleasure no longer exists. At this stage, the dopamine levels are high, which increases the craving for alcohol but without illusory pleasure. Neuroscience demonstrates that the desire for alcohol can transition into a pathological craving that is associated with dependence. Drinking creates a compulsive need for alcohol, but you don’t actually receive any enjoyment from it. How long this takes is person-specific. In some people, it can happen almost immediately, and in others, it can take several weeks, months, or years of drinking.
What Alcohol Does
Alcohol affects your cerebral cortex, especially your prefrontal cortex. It depresses the behavioral inhibitory centers, making you less inhibited. This also inhibits the processing of information from your eyes and mouth and further inhibits your thought processes, making it more difficult to think clearly.
In addition to slowing brain function, episodic drinking (defined as four drinks in a session for women and five drinks in a session for men) can injure the brain by causing the death of neurons. Finally, alcohol depresses nerve centers in the hypothalamus, which controls sexual performance and arousal. Sexual urges may increase, but sexual performance and sensory pleasure decrease.
According to Jason Vale:
When you stop putting a poison like alcohol in your body, it literally breaths a sigh of relief.
Read More About Why You Drink to Relieve Stress and Anxiety
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