How Alcohol Makes Stress Worse

How Alcohol Makes Stress Worse

Published on February 20, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

Alcohol is both blatantly and subtly presented as a solution for stress and anxiety in our culture. Watch any television show or movie and you are likely to see a character struggling over some inner turmoil or relationship issue with a drink in their hand.  A more concrete example might be found in your workplace, where coworkers often talk about needing a drink to decompress after a stressful day, or going out to a bar to bond with colleagues who can relate to each other’s experiences. 

With all these images and messages telling us that alcohol is the answer to our problems, it can be hard to see alcohol for what it truly is—an addictive substance that leads to worsened mental health and bigger problems in your personal and professional life. 

Alcohol has a way of causing problems for even the occasional drinker, but for those who develop an addiction, alcohol can take normal stress levels and the common pressures of life, and turn them into seemingly undefeatable challenges.

If you find you use alcohol to unwind after a stressful day or to manage symptoms of chronic anxiety, you may want to take a closer look at how this substance is contributing to the problem rather than resolving it.  

A Natural Process

In our society, we have a way of demonizing the concept of stress and treating this emotion, which often presents with very physical symptoms, as something that needs to be avoided and eliminated.  The truth is that stress is a natural response to your environment and a reaction that has helped humankind survive.

Stress responses help us to identify threatening or dangerous people, places, and circumstances and teach us how to avoid those things in the future.  Physical stress can occur in response to overexertion, while psychological stress develops in response to intense emotions such as anxiety, depression, grief, and fear. Psychological stress may also lead to physical symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and numbness or tingling in the arms and legs. 

Under high degrees of stress, your body in equipped to cope with this emotion by activating the nervous and endocrine systems to achieve balance within the body and mind. In other words, given the time and the space to do its job, your body is programmed to cope with stress quite well on its own.

Chemical Intervention

When we drink alcohol to manage symptoms of stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions, we are essentially intervening in a delicate bodily process.  Alcohol works by overstimulating neurotransmitters in the brain that provide a temporary feeling of numbness or euphoria.

Unfortunately, this feeling is often followed by a depletion of those same neurotransmitters, meaning that you will eventually feel more stressed and anxious than you were, to begin with.  Many people who are enduring high levels of stress due to poor mental health, difficult life circumstances, or high-pressure careers, fall into an unhealthy cycle of self-medicating with alcohol, only to use increasingly more alcohol when symptoms inevitably reoccur.  

Adding to the Issue

In addition to the ways in which alcohol makes stress worse on a chemical and biological level, drinking heavily can also contribute to stress by creating more problems in your personal and professional life.  People who abuse alcohol have a hard time maintaining healthy relationships, and may begin to experience conflict within their family as a consequence of their drinking.

Additionally, alcohol use tends to escalate over time, eventually becoming impossible to compartmentalize and spilling over into every aspect of your life.  This means that while you might only be drinking at night or on your days off, you may eventually feel the need to drink at earlier times of the day, on your lunch breaks, or even in the morning.

Drinking at work is not only likely to end your career, but for first responders and medical workers, drinking on the job is considered a danger to the public. Even for those who continue to only drink on their off-hours, constant hangovers can lead to irritability, poor work performance, and sloppy decision-making under pressure.

Finding Other Ways to Cope

Using alcohol to cope with stress is strikingly common, but that doesn’t mean it is your only option.  In fact, techniques such as meditation and mindfulness, as well as physical activity and talk therapy have been found to have far more lasting success with stress management than alcohol ever could. 

If you feel you might be addicted to alcohol, it is important to seek professional treatment for your addiction while also building on your stress management skills in the process. The absence of alcohol tends to make seemingly giant problems shrink, making everything in life a bit easier to handle, and giving you access to a much happier, healthier existence.  

The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses.  We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigma may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult.

Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career or a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships.  By taking a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, Simple Recovery makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing.

First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their community, and at Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we believe in dedicating our time and expertise to helping these compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at 888-743-0490.