Alcohol is often touted as a do-it-all wonderdrug that can fix any unpleasant situation, particularly, the stressful ones. Songs, movies, tv shows, and advertisements all perpetuate this notion that alcohol makes things better. While it can make you feel good at the moment, using alcohol to cope with stress is a counterproductive effort. Drinking can intensify the bodily reactions caused by stress which can make you feel worse and more prone to getting stressed out in the first place, leading to a vicious cycle and the added risk of developing a drinking problem. Alcohol isn’t just a coping mechanism that’s bad for you, it actually makes you feel worse.
How Does Stress Affect The Body?
Stress can put some serious wear and tear on your body. It affects everything from your muscles to your gastrointestinal and reproductive systems. Know what else does? Alcohol. It affects the body in many of the same ways that stress can, exacerbating those negative physiological reactions putting both your brain and body at risk.
When faced with a stressor your body releases hormones that make your heart work faster: adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine. These make our muscles tense and ready to go (think fight-or-flight), your brain more alert and focused, tells the heart to pump up the blood flow (pun intended), and the respiratory system to intake more oxygen. In the short term, this bodily reaction improves both physical and cognitive performance. It can be helpful in situations like taking a test, speaking in public, or simply catching a falling object. This is known as acute stress. Once the situation has passed, your body quickly goes back to normal (heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, etc.) and your body is none worse for wear.
But sometimes your body doesn’t return to normal even once the perceived threat or danger has passed (what’s known as anxiety). Repeated bouts of acute stress in a short period of time can result in a perpetual state of tension called chronic stress. This form of stress is extremely detrimental to overall health. The initial strain caused by stress hormones can cause a domino effect of ailments such as a weakened immune system or even neurological disruptions.
Chronic Stress, Alcohol & Your Brain
In addition to its physical toll, stress can negatively affect you psychologically. The overstimulation caused by chronic stress has been linked to the development (or worsening) of depression. When cortisol and other stress-related hormones are released, levels of feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are reduced–the lack of these neurotransmitters has a direct correlation with depression, anxiety, and the development of addiction. Further, these reduced levels can make individuals more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress, making you feel more anxious once the effects of alcohol wear off.
It’s a vicious cycle that starts out subtle but can quickly devolve into full-blown alcohol addiction. Drinking alcohol only worsens these effects, as it also disrupts levels of those same neurotransmitters. On its own, alcohol is known for contributing to the development of anxiety and depression, and those effects are amplified when consumed in a distressed state.
Drinking While Stressed Does More Harm Than Good
You may feel a temporary sense of euphoria or relaxation when you drink alcohol, but it doesn’t alleviate the effects of stress on your body. Unbeknownst to you, that glass of booze is sabotaging you, leaving you to feel worse both immediately afterward and in the long run. You’re now more susceptible to feeling overwhelmed with stress, so your physical and psychological reactions become more and more intense. This then compels you to rely even more heavily on your unhealthy coping mechanism. During all of which your serotonin and dopamine levels have constantly been disrupted. This definitely worsens your mood, but could also result in the development of anxiety or depression, which only deepens this already devastating cycle and can lead to alcohol use disorder.
The combination of alcohol and stress keeps your brain and body on edge for longer which not only makes one prone to getting stressed out more easily but the effects of which can then be even more harmful. In fact, the presence of alcohol can make it more difficult for your body to return to its normal pre-stressed state, increasing the likelihood of chronic stress which spells out a whole new set of dangers for your physical and mental health. If you or someone you know frequently turns to using alcohol to cope with stress they are in very real danger of developing a drinking problem (if they don’t have one already). Addiction specialists can help identify such behaviors and help individuals safely reduce their alcohol use and find better, long-term methods of coping.