Alcohol and mental health
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The negative effect of alcohol on our mental health is significant. Alcohol is a depressant that disrupts how the brain functions. It affects our thoughts, feelings and actions. Drinking alcohol regularly, and particularly binge drinking, can contribute to the development of new mental health problems including depression and anxiety. This can also make existing problems worse.1
Alcohol and anxiety
Alcohol has an anxiolytic effect.2 This means that it reduces feelings of anxiety. For example, having a drink may make some people feel more confident at a social occasion where they don’t know anyone else. But these effects are temporary. And in reality, this can increase anxiety in the long-term.
The morning after drinking alcohol, you may notice you’re feeling down or anxious. Alcohol has an effect on some of the chemicals in the brain.3 These changes can make you feel good while you’re drinking. However, once the effect has worn off, feelings of anxiety are common.4 In Ireland, this is colloquially known as “the fear”.
Part of this is because while you may feel relaxed, happy or less anxious after the first drink, alcohol can also reduce inhibitions. This includes impaired judgement and decision-making and less awareness of danger. It’s all part of the same process. And so, we may make poor decisions, take risks that we wouldn’t normally even consider or put ourselves and others in danger.5
How this affects sleep
Alcohol often leads to poor sleep because it has a sedative effect.6 Alcohol disrupts the sleep/wake cycle (our internal 24-hour clock) It also suppresses melatonin, which regulates the sleep cycle. The result is that sleep quality can be reduced. This is mainly due to the effects on Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is generally acknowledged to be the “restorative” component of sleep. And so, a lack of REM sleep can reduce concentration and focus the next day. Read more about alcohol and sleep
Alcohol and depression
Alcohol is a depressant. This means that alcohol can cause depression or make it worse.7 If you drink alcohol when you are experiencing symptoms of depression, things may seem better for a short time. But once these temporary effects of the alcohol wear off, you may feel even worse than before. And the cause of the depression has not gone away.8
Evidence shows that people who drink heavily are more prone to depression.9 Alcohol effects the chemistry of the brain. For example, by lowering the levels of serotonin, which regulates happiness.10 This can lead to depressive symptoms.11
Mental health problems like depression can become harder to manage if you use alcohol as a way of dealing with them. Attempts to cope with feelings and symptoms of depression may lead some people to drink more alcohol and more often (this is also known as self-medicating). The more you turn to alcohol as a way to cope, the less you will be able to cope without it. This can become a cycle and can lead to alcohol dependence.12
If you think you have depression, speak to your GP or a mental health professional.
Prevelance of drinking to cope
Drinking alcohol to improve your mood or cope with stress is an unhealthy coping strategy. And it means that you are missing out on developing healthy coping skills. This can lead to more serious problems in the future.
However, in Ireland there is emerging evidence that drinking to cope and conform is relatively common. Here are some of the reasons cited by Irish adults:13
- 41% – ‘To fit in with a group you like’
- 29% – ‘So you won’t feel left out’
- 29% – ‘Because it helps you when you feel depressed or anxious’
- 42% – ‘To cheer you up when you are in a bad mood or stressed’
- 34% – ‘To forget about your problems’
Think about your drinking habits
It’s a good idea to consider if your drinking may be affecting your mental health. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Am I drinking to change my mood?
- How is my mood the day after drinking?
- Is my drinking effecting my relationships with family/friends/colleagues?
If you feel you would like to reach out for support on this, see our Support hub for details of organisations who can help. Talk to your GP or local health professional if you think that you will find it hard to stop drinking.
1, 4 HSE – Alcohol and Your Mental Health https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/alcohol/mental-health/how-alcohol-affects-your-mental-health.html
2 Gilman, J.M. et al. Why we like to drink: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of the rewarding and anxiolytic effects of alcohol. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience vol. 28,18 (2008): 4583-91. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0086-08.2008
3 Banerjee, N. (2014). Neurotransmitters in alcoholism: A review of neurobiological and genetic studies. Indian journal of human genetics, 20(1), 20–31. https://doi.org/10.4103/0971-6866.132750
5 Marsh, B. (2019). Shyness, alcohol use disorders and “hangxiety”.
Personality and Individual Differences, 139; 13-18. Available here
6 Roehrs T, Roth T. Sleep, sleepiness, and alcohol use. Alcohol Res Health. 2001;25(2):101-9. PMID: 11584549; PMCID: PMC6707127. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-2/101-109.htm
7, 12 HSE – Alcohol and Depression https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/alcohol/mental-health/depression.html
8 Churchill, S. 2017. Alcohol and Depression, Evidence from the 2014 health survey for England. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Vol 180; 86-92
9 Mental Health Foundation (2006). Cheers: Understanding the relationship between alcohol and mental health. www.mentalhealth.org.uk
10 Conner, K. R., Pinquart, M., & Gamble, S. A. (2009). Meta-analysis of depression and substance use among individuals with alcohol use disorders. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 37(2), 127–137. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsat.2008.11.007
11 Aware – Depression https://www.aware.ie/information/depression/
13 Drinkware Index 2019: Analysing Hazardous Drinking in Ireland. Dublin: Drinkaware. http://www.drinkaware.ie/research/drinkaware-research-reports/drinkaware-index-2019-research-report/