Alcohol and mental health: can booze raise your stress?

Highly demanding jobs, money worries and relationships issues, they can all add up to make our stress levels soar. But, can stress and other mental health issues be further fueled by the alcohol that we drink in our day to day lives?

As reported by the Mental Health Foundation, “research has shown that 16 million people experience a mental health problem each year, and stress is a key factor in this”. Which is why this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May‎) is focused on understanding the impact stress has on our lives and how to tackle it effectively.

Increased alcohol consumption can sometimes be a signal telling us we’re stressed. When it comes to coping with everyday worries, reaching for a drink might seem like a good idea to help you lift your spirits and relax. However, in the long run, alcohol can have the opposite effect and contribute towards raising your stress, affecting your mental health and wellbeing. Wine, beer, cider or spirits, whatever your tipple of choice, the alcohol in your drink is a depressant, which means it can disrupt the delicate balance of chemicals your brain relies on for good mental health – especially if you consume more alcohol units than the weekly low-risk drinking guidelines recommend.

In fact, while a pint or two may cheer you up, this is only a short-lived effect that will quickly wear off. But, in the long run, drinking too much too often can exacerbate your stress and contribute towards the development of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Nicky Lidbetter, Chief Executive of Anxiety UK said: “the link between increased anxiety and alcohol whilst well-documented, is not something that those living with an anxiety condition are necessarily aware of.   This is a particular issue since many affected, turn to alcohol as a way of self-managing anxiety, unaware of the fact that alcohol triggers and also worsens anxiety.  Anxiety UK is therefore hugely supportive of any initiative that raises awareness of the effect of alcohol on mental wellbeing and in particular on conditions such as anxiety, stress and anxiety-based depression – all of which Anxiety UK can provide support for”.

Likewise, you might think that drinking can help you nod off after a stressful day at work, but in reality, alcohol can alter your sleep cycle and prevent you from getting that much needed rest. This may leave you feeling tired and sluggish the next day, which can make it harder for you to cope with the stress in your life.

Whatever issues you’re facing, there are more effective ways to cope with stress than reaching for a drink. Here are some tips to help you relax:

  1. Exercise – a great way to destress. Go for a run, swim or to a yoga class – or even a brisk walk can help clear your head of the day’s worries.
  2. Talk to someone about what’s worrying you. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your friends or family, talk to your GP or an accredited counsellor. They’ll be able to help you manage your feelings and point you to the right resources to help you restore your wellbeing.
  3. Take a hot bath or do some gentle stretches to relieve tension from your body.
  4. If you do decide to have a drink, follow the UK Chief Medical Officers’ (CMO) advice – it’s safest not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week and spread your drinking evenly over three or more days.
  5. If you’re drinking too much too often, cut back on alcohol by: –
  • Keeping track of what you’re drinking – use Drinkaware’s App to help you monitor your alcohol intake and change the way you drink.
  • Choosing low-alcohol drinks or mocktails.
  • Giving alcohol-free days a go. If you drink regularly, your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol. This is why many medical experts recommend taking regular days off from drinking to ensure you don’t become dependent on alcohol.