Looking back at my college years, it’s hard for me to imagine tackling social anxiety and dating without my old friend alcohol. If you’re anything like I was, you’re willing to try anything to calm your nerves and reduce your anxiety. So, can alcohol help with anxiety?
Alcohol can significantly reduce anxiety when used responsibly. Used around the world for millennia, alcohol could be considered the original anti-anxiety remedy. However, overuse of alcohol could lead to addiction and dependence, which would ultimately worsen anxiety.
While occasional alcohol use for anxiety relief could help with some anxiety disorders, it would almost certainly worsen other disorders. So, when might it be a good choice and when might it be a bad choice? Keep reading to find out!
What is Alcohol, Actually?
First thing’s first: You should know what it is you’re putting in your body.
Ethyl alcohol (the only kind of alcohol consumed in beverages) has been produced from the fermentation of grain, honey, or fruit, as long ago as 7000 B.C. By 2700 B.C. the ancient Greeks were worshiping deities of wine; so, you could say they liked the stuff, and it caught on.
How popular is drinking alcohol today? A survey of people aged 18 and older in the United States revealed:
87.6% report having tried drinking alcohol at least once in their life
71% reported drinking in the past year
56.3% reported drinking in the past month
In the United States currently, the drinking age is 21 and it’s considered a huge rite of passage to finally reach that age. In fact, that’s pretty much the last birthday anyone cares about. Attempts to maintain a ban on the substance during the Prohibition through the 20’s and into the 30’s didn’t even come close to succeeding, and even your local priests find ways to justify getting a little buzz on during their ceremonial rites.
So why have there been ancient gods of wine as opposed to ancient gods of milk or iced tea? What’s up with the world’s long-standing love affair with alcohol?
Alcohol for Anxiety Relief
Drinking responsibly is your duty and I’m by no means advising you to drink; alcohol is a drug and I am not a doctor. What I can tell you are my opinions on using alcohol for anxiety, based on many years of my own experience.
Alcohol is easily the most popular recreational drug in many countries, including the United States. As a depressant, alcohol works by calming and slowing down the nervous system – something that usually feels great for people with anxiety.
People have all kinds of different reasons for drinking alcohol. The most common reasons that I’ve seen, however, tend to be either:
1. Loosening up in social environments
2. Numbing of emotional stress
Obviously, people may have other reasons for drinking, but these seem to be the two most common. The first I consider to be reasonably healthy and normal in moderation. As long as you’re not toeing the line of substance abuse, for most people there is no harm in enjoying a few drinks.
The second, I believe, is what will cause problems down the road; it’s one thing to use alcohol to loosen up and socialize comfortably, but quite another to use it as an escape or major emotional crutch. I’ve never actually seen this kind of relationship with alcohol end well for anyone.
The depressant effects of alcohol allow your brain to feel more at ease. Social and sexual inhibitions are lowered, and so it is only natural for people to want to be drinking alcohol at parties and similar social events. It allows the consumer to socialize more confidently than usual, and in certain scenarios, can allow individuals to more easily achieve social interaction-based goals.
Drinking lightly to moderately can have great benefits from a social point of view as far as decreasing social anxiety and inhibitions goes. If you are inexperienced with alcohol but are legally old enough to drink, I would suggest starting light and working your way up each time you drink until you have an idea of what your limits are. The binge-drinking culture that some countries, such as the U.S., seem to foster, is overrated and reckless. More than half of all vehicle-related deaths in the U.S. involve alcohol, and there is no social benefit to acting like a fool and vomiting on yourself at the club. Reckless behavior is also an unfortunate possible side effect of drinking heavily, so be smart about drinking.
Also, it is important to note that the effects of alcohol can vary from person to person based on individual differences as well as the amount consumed. Some people may become calm and relaxed, while others may become more upbeat and socially inclined. While intoxicated, some people will exhibit obvious symptoms of reduced motor skills and be unable to walk properly, while others may still appear sober. Some people get violent, while others remain entirely peaceful and relaxed. Personality and behavior dispositions are likely a key factor to this variation, but only time and experience can really determine how you will react to alcohol.
Pros and Cons of Using Alcohol for Anxiety
Can Alcohol Help with All Anxiety Disorders?
For many people, alcohol can be a great way to get a leg up against their anxiety.
To loosen up in social situations and help you reach social interaction-based goals under a lightened load of social anxiety, alcohol might have its uses for you (in moderation).
Similarly, alcohol can sometimes help with phobias. If, for example, you have a phobia of public speaking and have a speech to give, a drink or two may help to take the edge off. Granted, this advice only stands assuming your phobia occurs somewhere that alcohol use is safe and acceptable.
Other anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and PTSD, should not be treated with alcohol. This is because these anxiety disorders often occur on a daily, regular basis. Alcohol should never be consumed on a daily basis (beyond a drink or two with dinner), or dependence and alcoholism are sure to follow.
If your anxiety is more predictable, as social anxiety often is (you know when you are going to enter a stressful social situation such as a party), drinking alcohol for anxiety relief may help you ease into the situation. Let’s talk about social anxiety and alcohol in a bit further detail.
Social Anxiety and Alcohol
Can alcohol help with social anxiety?
Alcohol is pretty well-suited to dealing with social anxiety and social anxiety disorder (SAD). For people with mild to moderate anxiety, a mild to moderate amount of alcohol should melt away most, if not all, of your anxiety. The fact is, alcohol wouldn’t be as popular as it is around the world unless it worked. And the reason we tend to drink alcohol at social events is… well, it works really well at decreasing social anxiety.
Unless you’re ripping shots left and right, it’s fairly easy to moderate your alcohol intake. Sticking to drinks like beer also forces you to pace yourself. For people like myself who have a high alcohol tolerance, it’s actually difficult for me to get overly drunk on beer alone, since my stomach fills up faster than the alcohol can hit my bloodstream.
As I’ve mentioned before, I see no issue with people occasionally using alcohol to take the edge off of social anxiety. Social anxiety and alcohol pair nicely, and a few drinks can really help to take the edge off in certain social situations; whether it’s a first date with your new crush or an hour on the dance floor with them.
The key is, with everything, to know your limits and not to surpass them. Don’t drink to get drunk, and don’t drink on a daily basis. Drinking every day to cope with the “social anxiety” you feel at the grocery store is a perfect example of what not to do.
Alcohol and Panic Attacks
Alcohol and panic attacks have a bit of an interesting relationship.
On the one hand, most people will definitely feel far less anxious while under the influence of alcohol. Having your nervous system calmed in this way is going to make it far less likely that you will have a panic attack; and any panic attacks you do have would likely be far less intense and shorter in duration. So, at first glance, it may seem like alcohol is a good solution to panic attacks…
However, the problem with this is the “randomness” of panic attacks. Many people have panic attacks seemingly randomly, with no obvious trigger. Since this is often the case, alcohol is a poor solution for panic attacks. Running for a bottle of alcohol any time you feel a panic attack coming on is not a solution, it’s the beginning of a far worse behavioral pattern.
If, however, your panic attacks are brought on by a very specific trigger, such as a phobia, a few drinks may be a decent option. But this advice is contingent upon such an event being very occasional for you. For example, if you have glossophobia but have a big speech to give; in most cases, it probably wouldn’t hurt to loosen up with a few drinks to stave off any phobia-triggered panic attacks. Just remember not to begin to rely alcohol as a crutch – use such a coping mechanism as sparingly as possible – or else alcohol may begin to cause your anxiety.
Anxiety after Drinking
When you think of the downsides of drinking alcohol, you probably think about hangovers, alcoholism, and dependency. What you may not be thinking about, is the alcohol rebound anxiety that comes after drinking.
When you drink, or do any drug for that matter, you are not just making yourself “happier” or “less anxious.” You are essentially borrowing your happiness or relaxation from a future date. When it comes to drugs, there is absolutely no such thing as a “free ride.” Drug and alcohol use may seem fun, but you will most certainly pay the neurological toll in some way or another.
The main reason why I advise my own friends to drink sparingly is not because of hangovers, alcoholism, or even beer bellies. The real reason I recommend drinking in moderation is because alcohol rebound anxiety is a real thing – and you don’t need to be an alcoholic, or even a regular drinker to experience it.
Another name for this “alcohol rebound anxiety” is what some people lovingly refer to as “Hangxiety.”
What is Hangxiety?
Hangxiety is the increased feeling of anxiety we experience, usually after a day or two after drinking alcohol. You do not need to be an alcoholic, or even a regular drinker to feel hangxiety. Hangxiety is often worse after binge drinking large amounts of alcohol, as opposed to smaller amounts.
Like I’ve said earlier, with drugs and alcohol, there is no such thing as a free ride.
For me, after a night of heavy binge drinking, I’ll spend the whole day hungover, and then I’ll spend the whole next day with hangxiety. When I was younger and more reckless, I would foolishly mix anxiety supplements with alcohol; I found that this would make the hangxiety even worse in the days that followed.
Hangxiety, to me, basically just feels like increased general anxiety. For a day or two, I’ll just feel this general sense of anxiety in my gut for no reason. I’ll also feel a greater degree of social anxiety, and will be less likely to be interested in social activities. Because of my increased state of anxiety, this will also put me at greater risk for having a panic attack.
How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Anxiety Last?
Even for alcoholics who are badly addicted to drinking, alcohol withdrawal symptoms will typically peak around 72 hours after their last drink, and usually subside after about 5 days.
If your hangxiety is not the result of alcoholism, but just from a regular binge-drinking bender, I’d say that two- or three-days tops is the longest most people will experience hangxiety for. It’s not usually the most severe anxiety out there, but you should definitely expect a low to moderate increase in anxiety for those few days.
Many people claim that their anxiety went away completely when they quit drinking. I believe cases like this are likely due to peoples’ brains craving alcohol when they aren’t constantly getting it: much like what happens when people are addicted to caffeine. Ultimately, after detoxing, their baseline anxiety levels are much healthier and they feel less anxious.
Anxiety After Drinking – The Cure
My current cure for hangxiety, or anxiety after drinking, is to take it easy and utilize some of the milder anxiety supplement options while I recover. Elsewhere on the site, I recommend my favorite teas for anxiety. Pick up some of those, and take it easy for a few days. Hangxiety will resolve itself before long, so hydrate, get your electrolytes, and sip some good tea.
Alternatives to Alcohol for Anxiety
Since alcohol is a poor solution for many anxiety disorders, we must look elsewhere to get the edge we need. To win the fight against generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, etc., there are plenty of superior anxiety supplement options.
I would hop over to this page on anxiety supplements for my most current recommendations; over there, I make it easy for you to figure out what might be the best option for you based on your particular anxiety disorder and situation.
Anxiety Medication and Alcohol
Please remember that you should never be mixing any kind of anxiety medication with alcohol. To do so can be extremely dangerous, as it may depress your nervous system too much, to the point where your organs fail or shut down entirely. Please be safe, and talk to your doctor if you have any questions about medication or alcohol.