How Drinking and Anxiety Disorders Are Interdependent

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Alcohol use and anxiety tend to go hand in hand. The presence of anxiety symptoms is often seen in tandem with a person’s alcohol use disorder (AUD). This form of comorbidity is a common dual diagnosis condition. As the most easily and openly available substance, alcohol is used for multifarious purposes, such as celebration, relaxation, defusing stress and anxiety, etc. Although alcohol can temporarily wash away one’s worries and sorrows, it has severe implications, especially when consumed excessively.

Similarly, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States that contribute to the phenomenon of using alcohol to self-medicate its symptoms. Due to the interdependence of alcoholism and anxiety, the existence of any one of these problems is likely to trigger AUD or anxiety disorders. The coexistence of anxiety disorders and AUD leads to comparatively severer symptoms than those triggered by any of these conditions alone. This comorbidity also leads to the higher rates of disability and an increased disease burden.

When anxiety disorders co-occur with AUD, it is associated with the higher rates of relapse if the individual were only to be treated for any one of the conditions. Unfortunately, the stigma around mental disorders and addiction prevent many individuals who experience co-occurring disorders from seeking help or even acknowledging their symptoms openly. In addition, only one-third of the individuals with anxiety disorders receive treatment even though these are quite treatable. There is less awareness on the optimal approaches available for treating such coexisting disorders.

Relation between anxiety and AUD

Anxiety is an indispensable part of life that a person witnesses during a stressful situation or problem. Though being anxious is a normal thing, some individuals feel it to a greater degree and for a longer period of time compared to others. These people are closer to the development of anxiety disorders, especially when their anxiety begins to dictate all aspects of their lives. They have an increasingly harder time in maintaining healthy relationships and accomplishing daily tasks. Moreover, they are more prone to misuse substances to ease the intensity of anxiety.

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that causes a sedative effect when consumed. For some individuals suffering from chronic anxiety, alcohol becomes a means of taking the edge off the pain and temporarily grants a safe haven from the deafening thoughts of worries.

When these individuals consume alcohol, their blood alcohol content (BAC) rises that triggers a relaxing but intoxicating effect. This pattern of unwinding or self-medicating is extremely dangerous because it creates dependency on alcohol. Consuming too much alcohol leads to blackouts, loss of memory and a decline in cognitive behavioral functions. It also leads to health complications, such as liver damage and the onset of some forms of cancer. In the long run, these factors can become a major source of stress and anxiety that worsen the symptoms of co-occurring disorders.

Although the onset of a psychiatric illness generally precludes the onset of AUD, the opposite is also true. Despite tall claims on the safe amount of alcohol for drinking, it has been found that even the moderate amount of it may trigger the underlying symptoms of anxiety. In fact, alcohol also has the innate tendency to worsen the condition of the individuals already coping with another form of anxiety disorders. Moreover, the chances of substance-induced anxiety increases in people already suffering from an anxiety disorder, thereby exacerbating the symptoms of the existing disorder.

The prolonged consumption of alcohol also has the potential to rewire the brain. The development of an addiction is associated with the changes in the brain that prioritize rewarding oneself with substance use. This not only makes a person more susceptible to experiencing anxiety-related problems, but also increases his or her risk of experiencing traumatic events that could become a potential cause for anxiety in the future.

Furthermore, alcohol changes the level of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain that can worsen anxiety. Secondly, alcohol-induced anxiety lasts for several hours or for a complete day after drinking. Thirdly, the physical symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol entail trembling, nausea, sweating and an elevated heart rate that could contribute to the development of long-term chronic anxiety.

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