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Stress and Alcohol: A Cocktail We Shouldn’t Mix

We have all experienced stress at some point in our lives. Whether it’s brought on by work, school, family, finances, or other factors, almost everyone knows the feeling of being “stressed out.” April is both Stress and Alcohol Awareness months. Since stress and alcohol are often intertwined, we are exploring what stress is and why alcohol isn’t the best solution for tense times.

What is stress?

Stress, in simple terms, is our body’s way of reacting to harm, both real or perceived. Even if we don’t like it, stress is a normal part of life, and experiencing stress every now and then typically isn’t harmful. Stress becomes a problem when it is consistent and increasing and feels all-consuming. When stress escalates to this extreme, it can have both emotional and physical side effects.

Emotional symptoms of stress include:

  • Easily agitated, moody, frustrated

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Unable to relax

  • Low self-esteem, feelings of loneliness, depression

  • Avoiding others

On the other hand, experiencing stress can make our bodies react physically. Some physical symptoms include:

  • Low energy

  • Headaches

  • Upset stomach

  • Tense muscles

  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat

Long-term symptoms of stress also include developing mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or personality disorders, as well as physical conditions, like cardiovascular disease and eating disorders.

Stress and Alcohol

As everyone experiences stress, it’s natural to find our own ways to deal with it. For many, it’s all too common to turn to alcohol as a short-term stress solution. You probably hear people say, “I need a drink” or “I can’t wait to go home to my glass of wine” at the end of the work day. Many people use alcohol to cope with anxiety or stress in social situations, specifically, drinking to feel more comfortable and outgoing. For women, alcohol is promoted as a way to relieve stress for moms. The phrase “mommy needs wine” can be found on various items, like shirts, glasses, and water bottles. While having a drink isn’t always bad, it isn't a healthy habit to use alcohol to cope with stress. In fact, alcohol has actually been proven to increase stress levels.

Alcohol consumption shifts the body’s hormone balance, changing how our brain perceives and responds to stress. When we drink alcohol, it causes an increase in the body’s production of cortisol, commonly referred to as the stress hormone. Our body also releases this same hormone when we experience stress. Short-term increases in cortisol can cause blood pressure to rise and impact our focus, alertness, and attention.

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol has many additional mental and physical consequences. Heavy drinking can lead to blackouts, memory loss, brain damage, and liver damage, to name a few, and overall it has been shown to increase anxiety and stress. Long-term alcohol misuse can also increase the chances of developing mental health disorders like depression.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Drinking to cope with stress or other emotions increases the chance of becoming dependent and developing an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorder is defined as being unable to stop or control your alcohol consumption. It can look different in every person, but some common signs of an alcohol use disorder include:

  • Drinking more/longer than intended

  • Unable to cut down on drinking

  • Spent a lot of time drinking/ recovering from drinking

  • Unable to think of anything other than drinking

  • Drinking interferes with day-to-day life

  • Continue to drink even if it is causing trouble or issues with family and friends

  • Had to drink more than usual to get the feelings/effect you want

  • Drinking puts you in harm's way

  • Withdrawal symptoms

Healthy Coping Mechanisms

The good news is that there are many things you can do to help cope with stress in a healthy way! It’s important to try different tactics until you find what works best for you. Everyone is different, and what works best for you might not be the best for someone else.

Stress coping mechanisms:

  • Try to notice when your stress is triggered and pause to acknowledge it: Noticing and naming it is important to calm yourself down and understand why it happens.

  • Accept and come to terms with your stress: Accepting your stress and not always trying to fight it off can help reduce it.

  • Meditation: Meditation can be as easy as closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing. There are also many meditation apps and videos you can use to help!

  • Distance yourself from your stressors: Sometimes it’s best just to step away from things that trigger your stress or remove yourself from stressful situations. Find something else to focus on or think about.

  • Engage in healthy habits: Healthy habits include exercise, yoga, and eating a healthy diet.

  • Deep breathing exercises can help steady your heart rate and calm you down.

  • Talk about your stress: Sharing it with others can help you feel less overwhelmed. Having a solid network of people you can talk to about your stress is also important.

  • Look for other activities to focus your attention on: Shifting your attention to things other than your stress can also help fight it. For example, if you are stressed about having a work-life balance, plan a fun activity with your family.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation techniques: These techniques release tension in your body, working to relieve stress.

If you are unable to cope with stress on your own, and it is causing further issues, such as anxiety and depression, it may be time to seek help from a professional. Take our alcohol use self-assessment to see if your drinking puts you at risk. Keep in mind this does not replace a diagnosis from a mental health professional. Visit our website to find treatment and support resources.

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