By Patty Bell, Interventionist, Capo by the Sea

How many of us, at the end of a stressful day, might seek the relaxing effects of an alcoholic beverage or two? The goal in this is that alcohol, being a depressant, will provide us with a calming effect—and that can be true. However, for someone who struggles with anxiety, alcohol can actually backfire by exacerbating the symptoms of the disorder, as well as possibly leading to an alcohol use disorder.

When alcohol is used to self-medicate the effects of anxiety, there is a real risk of acquiring a co-occurring alcohol use disorder. If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety and using alcohol in this way, read on to learn about the adverse effects and risks of alcohol abuse.

What is Anxiety Disorder?

As the number one mental health disorder in the U.S. today, anxiety afflicts approximately 40 million adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Of the six subtypes of anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most prevalent. This form of anxiety is characterized by excessive fear, worry, and dread to the point where their ability to function becomes impaired.

Symptoms of GAD include:

Persistent feelings of fear and worry that exceed the perceived threat
Difficulty relaxing
Muscle tension
Racing heart
Shallow breathing
Holding one’s breath
Difficulty concentrating
Feeling jumpy or restless
Difficulty dealing with uncertainty
Unable to let go of worry

Self-Medicating Anxiety with Alcohol

When someone struggles from the usual symptoms of anxiety, it isn’t surprising that they might access the use of alcohol to help reduce those symptoms. After all, alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system, slowing down the respiratory rate, heart rate, and leading to a sense of deep relaxation. In fact, 37% of those with alcohol use disorder also have co-occurring anxiety disorders.

The problem with this strategy is that over time the individual will notice that they need to drink more to achieve those relaxing effects. This is due to increased tolerance as the brain adjusts to the consistent exposure to alcohol. With continued drinking, as a way to self-medicate the anxiety, alcohol dependence or addiction can take hold.

Another unexpected effect is the enhanced anxiety symptoms that may result when attempting to self-medicate with alcohol. This is due to the effects of alcohol on the body, such as dehydration, lowered blood sugar, temporary increased heart rate, and hyperactivity.

Dangers of Mixing Anti-Anxiety Meds and Alcohol

Someone who is being treated for an anxiety disorder is likely being prescribed anti-anxiety medication. For the majority of anxiety sufferers, benzodiazepines are the most common drugs for treating these disorders. Benzos include such drugs as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan, which work by increasing the GABA levels in the brain, which slows down the central nervous system.

It isn’t difficult to see how risky it might be to be taking benzos for the anxiety and also using alcohol to increase the sedating effects of the drug. Because both substances are depressants, there could be devastating effects on the body, including:

Slowing down the heartbeat too much
Slowing the respiratory rate too much
Impeding brain and cognitive functioning
Causing brain damage
Causing coma
Causing death if the heart stops beating and/or the individual stops breathing

6 Natural Relaxation Techniques

If you find yourself reaching for a drink when anxiety ramps up, stop and try some of these holistic relaxation methods instead:

Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a powerful type of meditation that helps you redirect anxious thoughts toward experiencing the present moment. We tend ruminate over things that trouble us or fret about the future. Practicing mindfulness allows you to shift the mental focus from the worrying thoughts toward our present moment experience.

Daily walks. A simple 20-minute walk each day can have a significant impact on stress levels. Exercise causes the body to produce endorphins, which helps to boost your mood. Exercise also elevates the production of neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, and these can help reduce stress and reduce depression symptoms.

Practice deep breathing techniques. A quick de-stresser is a simple as using focused breathing techniques. These can be practiced anywhere at any time. And are highly effective in reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate. There are several effective deep-breathing techniques, including the 5-7-8. This involves slowly drawing in the breath and filling the lungs to a count of 5, holding the breath for a count of 7, and then releasing the breath completely to a count of 8. Repeat five times.

Journaling. When you put into writing the events or emotions that have stirred up feelings of anxiety you actually diminish their power. As you write, you begin to process the emotions associated with the event, which helps you get to a place of peace and calm. To help manage stress and anxiety, make journaling a new healthy routine.

Practice yoga. Yoga involves both the mind and the body. Each carefully executed movement helps to increase flexibility and strength, and the simultaneous focused breathing reduces stress. Free yoga sessions can be accessed on YouTube or other streaming platforms so you can practice it from the comfort of your home at little to no cost.

Guided meditation. Access guided meditation apps that provide a variety of scripted programs that lead you through the steps toward a peaceful mind state. These scripts are available via smartphone apps or video downloads, in which a facilitator walks provides descriptive mental imagery that slowly induces a state of relaxation.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

In the event that holistic methods do not adequately control alcohol use or anxiety symptoms, consider enrolling in a dual diagnosis treatment program. These are comprehensive programs that provide both psychiatric care and addiction recovery activities to assist someone struggling with co-occurring disorders.

Dual diagnosis treatment includes the following:

Medical detox. If an alcohol use disorder is present, the first step of recovery involves the detox and withdrawal process.
Psychotherapy. Talk therapy provides a safe, confidential setting for clients to discuss any underlying issues associated with the anxiety disorder or the alcoholism.
Medication. The psychiatric disorder, in this case anxiety, may require medication.
Peer group sessions. Small group sessions provide an opportunity for peers in recovery to discuss topics related to the journey.
Education. Life skills, addiction education, and relapse prevention planning are all part of the dual diagnosis program.
Holistic. Clients are introduced to a variety of relaxation techniques that they can continue to practice in recovery, such as meditation, massage, acupuncture, equine therapy, and yoga.

Author's Bio: 

Patty Bell is the Family Relations Manager/Interventionist of Capo By The Sea
, a luxury addiction and dual diagnosis treatment program located in South Orange County, California. After her own successful experience with the recovery process and journey, Patty decided to be part of a unique program that was individualized for each client’s specific treatment needs. Bell’s passion to share her own positive experience with others, while being a living example of the freedom found in recovery, is what motivates her to guide clients toward their own stable, long-term recovery.