Meeting new people or stepping into new situations can be stressful. Our apprehension at saying or doing the wrong thing can be overwhelming, and often we’re quick to reach for the quickest solution to ease our tension. Often called a “social lubricant,” many people use alcohol to take the edge off anxious situations and make communicating with others easier.
However, some people resort to alcohol abuse rather than indulge in it. People of all ages—teens, young adults in college, those in middle age and even seniors—have reported abusing alcohol to alleviate anxiety, depression and many other states of mental or emotional distress. There are numerous reasons people abuse alcohol, and many people who exhibit problematic drinking behavior could be resorting to alcohol abuse due to an unseen catalyst. If you have a family member, friend or acquaintance who abuses alcohol, be aware of the following signs that he or she is using alcohol as a way to treat psychological distress.
Feelings of anxiety are a natural, healthy reaction in a number of situations. However, anxiety that becomes debilitating or interferes with daily life is not natural and could be evidence of an anxiety problem, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder or even obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anxiety is one of the most common triggers for alcohol abuse, partly due to the misconception that drinking alcohol calms your nerves. The reality, confirmed by research, is that alcohol causes brain changes that actually make anxiety worse by increasing susceptibility to anxious feelings. Those who abuse alcohol to cover up feelings of anxiety may be noticeably anxious or fearful seemingly without provocation much of the time.
Defining the relationship between depression and alcohol abuse is tricky. About one-third of those with depression also suffer from a substance abuse disorder, but there’s disagreement as to whether alcoholism causes depression or depression causes alcoholism; in reality, it’s most likely both. Being a depressant itself, alcohol in large volumes will cause changes in the brain’s structure and functioning, which causes symptoms of depression. This is why there are so many people who have both a drinking problem and depression—referred to as dual diagnosis—despite the murkiness of the precise causal relationship between the two afflictions. Those who use alcohol abuse to cover up depression tend to exhibit exacerbated symptoms of both, such as extreme weight loss or gain, marked irritability, disinterest in things previously found enjoyable, inability to concentrate, pronounced lethargy, and lack of energy and motivation.
More than just severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is characterized by overwhelming anxiety and stress that reoccurs due to a past experience of trauma. Victims of childhood sexual or physical abuse frequently suffer from PTSD, but it’s also common in soldiers who have witnessed extreme violence, victims of rape and violent assault, natural disaster and car wreck survivors, and those who have lived through a number of other experiences involving traumatic events. In short, PTSD occurs when individuals experience incidents from which they can’t quite recover on their own, making them more likely to resort to substance abuse to cope. In fact, more than half of those who have PTSD also suffer from alcoholism.
The brain responds to a trauma in much the same way it responds to the intake of alcohol or drugs, triggering a spike of endorphins in order to reduce fear and pain. People who abuse alcohol to curb symptoms of PTSD are prone to emotional outbursts followed by binge drinking in order to suppress those feelings; however, alcohol worsens feelings of anxiety and fear, releasing endorphins that spike, subside and prompt another alcohol binge. It is very common, and very easy, for those who use alcohol as a way to treat PTSD to get caught in this vicious cycle.
Numerous psychological afflictions can prompt alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism. It’s unclear whether high rates of dual diagnosis—with mood disorders, depression, bipolar disorder and other psychological afflictions—indicate that mental health problems can cause alcohol abuse behavior or whether alcohol abuse can trigger other psychological problems, but it’s certain that alcohol worsens symptoms of mental and emotional issues. Knowing when alcohol is being used to cover up an underlying issue will help you direct those in need to the best options for treatment, preventing co-occurring conditions from causing further harm or escalating substance abuse behavior. If you or someone you know is exhibiting any of the signs described above, contact us today, and one of our admissions coordinators can discuss treatment options with you. Call our toll-free helpline anytime, day or night, and we will help you or your loved one find the path to lasting recovery.
Integrated Treatment of Substance Abuse & Mental Illness