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How Alcohol Can Affect Your Mental Health

Some people use alcohol as an unhealthy coping mechanism to relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression, or stress. While alcohol may provide temporary relief from emotional distress, over time, it can worsen a person’s emotional state and contribute to the development of a mental health condition.1, 2

This can lead to an unhealthy cycle of alcohol misuse and can put a person at risk of experiencing several short- and long-term effects of alcohol.1 It can also lead to the development of an alcohol use disorder (AUD), the clinical diagnosis of alcohol addiction characterized by a person’s inability to control or stop drinking despite experiencing negative consequences.1, 3

If a person has an AUD and a mental health disorder at the same time, it is known as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis.2 Alcohol misuse can make it more challenging to treat a mental health disorder and vice versa, which is why people with a mental health disorder are often advised to abstain from alcohol and receive integrated treatment for both.4

Because alcohol and mental health have a complex relationship, it is important to know how they can affect each other. Learn how alcohol can affect common mental health disorders below and what to do if you are struggling with alcohol, your mental health, or both.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Alcohol can negatively impact brain communication pathways and can impair areas of the brain that control important functions, leading to many unwanted effects.5

Some of the effects of alcohol on the brain include:5, 6

  • Poor balance.
  • Trouble walking.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Poor judgment.
  • Slowed movement and thinking.
  • Decreased inhibitions.
  • Impaired memory.
  • Alcohol-induced blackouts.

Alcohol can disrupt neurotransmitter systems in the brain and chronic alcohol use can lead to various brain changes, causing imbalances in neurotransmitter activity. This can result in agitation, anxiety, depression, and several other behavior and mood disorders.7, 8

Alcohol and Anxiety

Many people use alcohol to relieve symptoms of anxiety. While alcohol may provide short-term relief, it can cause or exacerbate anxiety in the long term, even in people who do not have an anxiety disorder.4 Even a single episode of excessive alcohol use can cause a person to experience anxiety-like symptoms, which can increase during periods between alcohol use, and further escalate during alcohol withdrawal.4

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) and anxiety disorders often occur together. Research suggests a 20 to 40% prevalence rate of AUD in people treated for an anxiety disorder.4 Other research suggests up to 50% of people who receive treatment for alcohol misuse also meet the criteria for 1 or more anxiety disorders.9 Symptoms of anxiety disorders can vary depending on the specific disorder but are characterized by excessive, recurrent fear or worry that causes significant distress.4

Alcohol and Depression

Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development or worsening of mental health disorders like depression.8 Research suggests that a person’s risk of depression is at least 50% greater if they have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).10

There are different types of depressive disorders, including major depressive disorder, which is characterized by symptoms such as depressed mood, poor appetite and sleep, and suicide attempts or ideation.11 One study found that prevalence rates of co-occurring AUD and major depressive disorder range from lifetime rates of 27% to 40% and up to 22% over 12 months.4

Research has found environmental and genetic links between AUD and depression.4 Additionally, chronic alcohol use in people with depression can worsen clinical outcomes and increase the risk of longer depressive episodes, poor cognitive functioning, and suicide.4

Alcohol and Suicide

Studies show a connection between alcohol use and suicide, including behaviors and feelings that might lead to suicidal ideation. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that alcohol may increase cognitive dysfunction, dysphoria (very low mood), impulsive behavior, and the intensity of suicidal ideation.10 Research reported by the WHO also shows that people can have up to 7 times increased risk of a suicide attempt shortly after they drink alcohol; that risk further escalates to 37 times after heavy alcohol use.10

People with AUD have a 2 to 3 times increased risk of suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts, and completed suicides compared to the general population.10 Additionally, people with an AUD and co-occurring mental health disorders often use alcohol more frequently, and they can have an increased risk of being hospitalized or attempting suicide if they do not receive treatment.4

Alcohol and Aggression

According to the WHO, research has found a significant correlation between alcohol use and aggression, although this correlation can be affected by individual and contextual factors.10 Some studies show that up to 50% of men dependent on alcohol exhibit aggressive behavior. Men not dependent on alcohol but heavily intoxicated are 5 times more likely to be involved in violence.10

Alcohol-Related Psychosis

Alcohol-related psychosis, also known as “alcoholic hallucinosis,” can develop in people who are acutely intoxicated, undergoing alcohol withdrawal, or have a history of chronic, heavy drinking.11, 12 Although rare, it can develop shortly after a person drinks heavily, and can resemble symptoms associated with schizophrenia, such as fear, hallucinations, and paranoia.12

Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome is a neurological disease that can develop due to thiamine deficiency, often as a consequence of long-term alcohol misuse.6, 13 It involves 2 conditions—Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is an acute disorder that causes confusion, paralysis of the nerves responsible for eye movement, and muscle coordination problems. Korsakoff’s psychosis can develop in the late stages of the disease.6 Korsakoff’s psychosis can be debilitating and cause brain damage leading to persistent learning and memory problems, disorientation, decreased inhibition, and confabulations (replacing memories with false information).13

What Help Is Available?

If you are struggling with alcohol use, a mental health disorder, or both, help is available. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is treatable, and there are alcohol addiction treatment programs that can help you stop drinking and find recovery while addressing any co-occurring mental health disorders.14

While recovery looks different for everyone, treatment may combine behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, contingency management, motivational enhancement therapy, and 12-step facilitation.4 These are designed to increase a person’s motivation to make healthy life changes, teach them ways to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, help them stay in treatment, and help them learn new skills that can support recovery.4

Integrated treatment is important for people suffering from an AUD and a co-occurring mental health disorder.4 With integrated treatment, a person is evaluated and treated for both disorders at the same time.15 Integrated treatment can involve a combination of behavioral therapies and medication. Combining these methods has been shown to result in better outcomes for people with co-occurring disorders.4

The medications you might receive can depend on the mental health disorder you have. If you have an anxiety disorder, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may receive antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to help manage your symptoms.4 You may also receive different FDA-approved medications to treat alcohol use disorder, such as acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone, which can help you stop drinking and avoid relapse.4

If you or someone you care about are struggling with AUD, mental health, or both, treatment may be available at a rehab center near you or out of state. You can learn more about the various treatment options by contacting your primary care physician (PHP) or a mental health practitioner. You can also contact American Addiction Centers (AAC). AAC is a leading provider of evidence-based treatment and can answer your questions about addiction, verify your insurance, and more.

 

 

 

 

 

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