Self-Medicating Anxiety with Alcohol

September 6, 2011   •  Posted in: 

Patty felt keyed up, tense. Today, the plastic bus seat seemed more complicated than usual, and Patty shifted uncomfortably every few minutes. She felt like she was coming out of her skin and couldn’t wait to get off the bus and home. It wasn’t that someone waited just beyond the front door but something. With the kids out and one their own – and her ex just plain out – there hadn’t been much at home to look forward to. Over the past year, though, Patty had come to rely more and more on her evening buffer at the end of a long and frustrating day.

It had started as just a glass of wine with dinner; after all, who was there to see or care? That single glass, however, had worked its way up to several refills. Patty stopped counting; she didn’t want to know.

Cocooned in a merlot fog, Patty could feel the stress and worry that relentlessly stalked her during the day slip away. Nothing mattered; nothing could get to her. The free-floating sense of impending disaster dissipated, merging with the fog. Fear, stress, and anxiety couldn’t break through; she made sure of that as she topped off her glass.

Of course, joy, peace, and satisfaction had no chance of scaling the alcohol wall either, but Patty didn’t care, or at least she told herself she didn’t. Everything in life came with a payoff and a payment. The fix was numbness and relief. The price was peace. For now, it was an acceptable trade.

“Relax; have a drink.” We’ve all probably heard this more than once. We’ve listened to it and seen the relaxation benefits of alcohol. Alcohol, it’s true, is a depressant that works on the brain to produce a sense of relaxation.

The line for relaxation with alcohol, though, is a fine one. The more alcohol consumed, the less benign the effects. With the initial wave of peace can come disruption of sleep patterns, loss of physical coordination, loss of inhibition, slurred speech, nausea, thirst, fatigue, and dizziness. What starts as  a way to relax leads to a risk of developing alcohol dependence. What begins as something you want turns into something you need.

Alcohol dependence is defined by the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, as “a disease in which a person craves alcohol, is unable to limit their drinking, needs to drink greater amounts to get the same effect, and has withdrawal symptoms after stopping alcohol use. Alcohol dependence affects physical and mental health and causes problems with family, friends, and work. Also called alcoholism.”

Anxiety can produce a need for relief. When alcohol is chosen as that relief agent, it can be effective in the short term. But the short-term nature of that relief means you must continually use alcohol to maintain the effect. The more alcohol you use, the greater tolerance you develop for its products. The greater the patience, the more alcohol you have to use to achieve the same effect. This is the vicious cycle of alcohol dependence.

What started as a way for you to self-medicate your anxiety can quickly come back to haunt you. Your head choice for anxiety relief can become a physical necessity for anxiety relief. In the terrible paradoxes of addiction, withdrawal from alcohol dependence produces increased levels of anxiety. You started out drinking to help with the stress, and you end up consuming more and more because of the anxiety produced if you don’t. You started out using alcohol to alleviate life’s concerns, and you end up adding alcohol-induced worries if you stop.

If you use alcohol to self-medicate your anxiety, explore your options for getting help today, visit our anxiety treatment page.

SOURCE: Chapter 4 in Overcoming Anxiety, Worry and Fear: Practical Ways to Find Peace

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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