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The Surprising Way Alcohol Makes Your Brain More Anxious

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Whether you or a family member has a problem with alcohol use, it’s important to know how it affects the brain and the practical steps you can take to escape the cycle. 

But I am not a substance abuse counselor. It’s out of my wheelhouse. So I was super grateful when Amber Hollingsworth offered to make a video for my channel all about how alcohol use has the surprising side effect of making your brain more anxious.

Alcohol use changes your brain chemistry in a way that makes you more anxious. It also changes how you think, which can make you more anxious, and when you’re drunk you might do stuff that makes you more anxious later. 

Whether you or a family member has a problem with alcohol use, it’s important to know how it affects the brain and the practical steps you can take to escape the cycle. 

But I am not a substance abuse counselor. It’s out of my wheelhouse. So I was super grateful when Amber Hollingsworth offered to make a video for my channel all about how alcohol use has the surprising side effect of making your brain more anxious. 

Amber is a licensed professional counselor and a master addiction counselor. She’s also just super freaking passionate about helping individuals and families overcome addiction. And she’s worked in every level of care since 2004. So I hope you love what she has to say. Here’s Amber. 

Alcohol Abuse and Anxiety

If you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or even traumatic memories, it can be super easy to fall into a pattern of drinking alcohol as a way of coping with all the difficult emotions and uncomfortableness that come along with those things. 

And that happens because of the way our brains respond to alcohol. It works on our GABA receptors, which are the sort of slow-you-down, calm-you brain chemicals that we all have. 

And so naturally, alcohol initially feels like a very welcome break from those uncomfortable feelings that come along with anxiety and depression. But in the long run it does a lot more damage than good. 

In fact, it’s probably one of the worst coping skills that you can use, because in the end it’ll take whatever anxiety or depression that you’re dealing with and magnify it times about a hundred. And there are some good reasons for that. And it all stems from the way our brain reacts to the alcohol. 

So like we talked about in the beginning, initially the alcohol brings in that sort of calm-you-down feeling that feels like it’s that gentle relief. I call it the “put on your yoga pants at the end of a long day” type of feeling. It’s like, “Finally I can relax.” 

But your brain starts to react to that neurochemical change by trying to counteract all that calm-you-down chemical, and so what it does is it produces more of that jittery, uncomfortable, anxious-y type feeling and chemical called glutamate, which is kind of the opposite of GABA. 

I like to think of it like a seesaw. So when you drink, your brain produces more GABA, and it calms you down. But then your brain tries to counteract it by producing more of the opposing chemical, called glutamate, which in the end feels pretty uncomfortable. And it’s this seesaw effect that actually causes people to get stuck in any kind of cycle of alcohol abuse or even alcohol dependence. 

And in fact, if you start drinking regularly, your brain will just put this process on autopilot. 

So for example, if you tend to want to have a few drinks every day after work — maybe that’s five or six o’clock for you — your brain will actually start to flood you with glutamate at that time of day, even if you haven’t drank, because it’s so used to that being a drinking time, which is another reason it can be difficult to break those drinking patterns. 

Ultimately, if you continue to drink alcohol as a coping skill for depression, anxiety, trauma, or loss you can get trapped in this really sort of unproductive cycle. And eventually it feels like the only time you have any relief at all is when you’re drinking. 

And when that happens, everything else in your day or in your life becomes stuff that you have to do and check off and that you kind of dread in between times when you can drink. And if it goes on long enough, it can even be really difficult to get to sleep at night without alcohol. 

Now, if you’re sensing that that’s happening for yourself or for a loved one, that’s really a sign that someone is developing alcohol dependency. 

And even besides all of that physical stuff, there are even other ways that alcohol can make anxiety, depression, or trauma worse, because on the psychological side of things, whenever we drink we tend to relive and replay all the old past hurts, bad memories, losses, all of that negative stuff that we’re trying not to think about. 

That stuff resurfaces when we’re drinking because it sort of takes our filter offline, and so all of that other stuff which is just below the surface comes up to the top and we can go over those memories over and over and over again. 

Oftentimes when I see people who are struggling with alcohol problems, it’s like somewhere along the way they got trapped in some kind of difficult life experience and they can’t seem to move past it. And the biggest reason for that is the drinking. It turns on that replay button in our heads. And typically the replay is some kind of memory or thought or event that we’d really rather forget. 

Not only does it bring all that up to the surface so that we’re really living it all the time, but because we’re reliving it over and over and over, whatever that thing is feels worse and worse and worse and it begins to build like a snowball, keeping you trapped in grief, loss, and trauma. You can’t move forward as long as you’re drinking as your coping mechanism. 

Now, add on top of that another way that alcohol makes depression, anxiety, and trauma worse: when we drink alcohol we have a tendency to do things that we regret or that we’re embarrassed of. We basically create more problems for ourselves, which gives us more things to feel bad about and worry about and feel guilty about. 

It can even get our friends and family upset with us because of things that happen while we drink, which is yet another thing that we have to worry about. 

And on top of all that, drinking makes us less productive and less able to focus in our life. 

So when you step back and you take a real hard look at how alcohol is really impacting your depression and anxiety, you’re going to figure out that even though in the moment it feels like it’s helping, when you back up and you take some steps back and you look at it, you can see that it’s actually made things way way worse over a long period of time. 

And it can even get to the point where it’s the only time you feel any relief. And when you get to that point, it’s hard to even imagine life without alcohol because we lose the ability to experience joy and happiness from other things. 

When we’re not drinking we feel anxious or uncomfortable. Or at minimum, we just can’t wait to get home and have that first drink, kind of like that feeling of “get home and put on your yoga pants.” 

Now, if you feel like you or someone you care about has been using alcohol as a coping mechanism and you’re ready to do something different, then take a look at my YouTube channel. It’s called Put the Shovel Down, and it’s all about helping you understand the science and psychology of addiction, and it is full of practical steps to help you get yourself or your loved one out of the trap. That way you can put to even more use all the skills that you’re learning right here on Therapy in a Nutshell.

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