Alcohol

How to Break the Vicious Cycle of Stress and Alcohol Dependence

August 13th, 2018
Man considering a drink

Like drugs and alcohol, certain things should not be mixed. Stress and drinking can be a similarly toxic combination that has unfortunately become normalized. Studies suggest that individuals who claim to have high levels of stress also admit to drinking more frequently than those who do not experience stress. People with social anxiety show even more of a propensity toward using alcohol consumption to mask their worries. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that 15 million Americans suffer from social anxiety disorder, and one out of five of these sufferers also contend with alcoholism. 

What is Stress and How Can It Cause Alcoholism?

People have different reasons for drinking: some associate the activity with socializing or celebrating while others turn to alcohol to deal with outside pressures or responsibilities. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines stress as “anything that challenges the body’s ability to function in its usual fashion,” heightening feelings of “anxiety, anger, fear, excitement, or sadness.” Stress manifests in several forms and can be caused by day-to-day stressors like work or relationships, catastrophes and natural disasters, pressures associated with being part of a minority group, and childhood abuse. Drinking may provide temporary comfort initially, but using alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress can have disastrous long-term consequences.

People prone to drinking under pressure, such as college students, are more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder. Despite the common association between binge drinking and celebratory events on college campuses, the primary reason students drink appears to be to combat unstable, negative emotions. Researchers from Penn State University instructed freshman students in college to record their drinking activity and any instances of stress in a journal, discovering that students who noted more daily stressors were more inclined to drink. The results of the study not only indicated that students were eight percent more likely to drink every time an additional stress trigger was introduced but also found that the individuals who drank more on high-stress days were more at risk of developing alcoholism by their senior year.

Alcoholic beverages may help some people relax, but people should not drink because they assume that alcohol will make their stress go away. This mentality can cause individuals to mistakenly turn to alcohol as a mood enhancer and a crutch for dealing with real-world issues.

How Does Drinking Alcohol Increase Stress Levels?

Ironically, while many use alcohol to deal with stress, drinking can actually increase stress levels. Substance abuse problems can negatively impact school or work performance, familial and romantic relationships, and finances, intensifying the potential stress triggers that caused the individual to drink in the first place.

Aside from altering behavior and interpersonal relationships, alcohol puts stress on the body and the mind. This phenomenon is so common that the colloquial term, “hangxiety”, has become more widely used to describe feelings of anxiety during a hangover. A night of drinking can actually trigger stress: as alcohol is removed from the body, blood sugar levels fall, aggravating symptoms of anxiety for some.

An article for the Research Society on Alcoholism demonstrates that alcohol also places more stress on the body in physiological terms by increasing levels of cortisol, a hormone the body naturally generates when stressful events occur. Though cortisol can be beneficial in smaller increments, high levels of the hormone can have damaging consequences, including inflammation, spikes in blood sugar, high blood pressure, and reduced cognitive abilities. The same study found that individuals who experience alcohol dependence or abuse display higher concentrations of cortisol during both inebriation and withdrawal. When the presence of cortisol throughout the body becomes chronic, individuals may suffer from central nervous system and organ damage.

Managing Addiction and Stress

While the combined effects of anxiety and alcoholism can take a tremendous toll on the mind, body, and spirit, there are ways to treat the two conditions concurrently. Practices such as yoga and meditation are helpful treatments to promote both stress relief and sobriety. People in recovery may benefit from attending AA meetings, which provide a support system for those who feel like they are struggling alone. Those who feel anxious or uncomfortable in group settings may opt to meet with a medical professional in private about treating any co-occurring disorders accompanying addiction.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing are treatments that people with social anxiety and alcohol dependence may find particularly helpful. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on how emotions influence behavioral patterns. People afflicted by co-occurring disorders may also favor motivational interviewing, a counseling technique centered on encouraging the client to set and accomplish goals.

People who suffer from anxiety should not compound their symptoms by self-medicating with alcohol. Developing healthy coping mechanisms to handle stress and anxiety are key to leading a sober, fulfilling life. 


If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, we are here to help. Reach out to Mountainside by calling 888 833 4676.