How to Break the Vicious Cycle of Stress and Alcohol Dependence

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 show a propensity toward using alcohol consumption to mask their worries, according to a report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

What is Stress and How Can Lead to 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 as well as traumatic events. While drinking may provide temporary relief, using alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress can have disastrous long-term consequences.

One group that knows the pitfalls of drinking to alleviate stress all too well are college students. Due to the different types of pressure they face, they are more likely to develop a substance use 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. This study concluded that students were eight percent more likely to drink every time an additional stress trigger was introduced. The researchers 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 drinking alcohol to make stress subside is not advisable. 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?

While many use alcohol to deal with stress, drinking tends to cause greater stress in the short and long term. 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 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.

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 diminished 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 Stress and Alcohol Misuse

When it comes to managing your stress, counseling is vital. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and Motivational Interviewing (MI) are examples of clinical treatment offerings that are helpful for people with anxiety and alcohol dependence. 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.

Additionally, those struggling with alcohol use and mental health disorders can try holistic therapies such as yoga and meditation to help alleviate feelings of anxiety and stress. For those who feel like they are alone in their struggle, AA meetings can provide them with the community support and guidance they need.

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