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How Alcohol Messed with My Mental Health

In this blog Jen shares her experience of drinking to self-medicate negative mental health, and five ways alcohol may be messing with yours.

When I started dealing with mental health issues six years ago, I thought a few vinos at night were just what the doctor ordered. Drinking calmed me down, it numbed me, and allowed me to escape from the internal world of pain I had somehow found myself in, despite having a beautiful life.

The more I drank, the worse my mental health became. Despite regular therapy and medication, my anxiety escalated to include panic attacks. My flat, low mood began to morph into feelings of hopelessness and eventually thoughts of self-harm.

I tried everything I could think of to dig myself out of the quicksand. I genuinely wanted to get better and I worked so hard at it. I’m talking; doctors, psychologists, medications, coaches, yoga, meditation, bodywork, acupuncture, naturopaths, energy healers, nutritionists, every weird and wonderful supplement under the sun (including encapsulating and consuming my placenta!), running, crossfit, moving countries, changing jobs and changing careers. All of this, while drinking every night. And I wondered why I wasn’t getting better.

It wasn’t until I finally listened to that small but persistent voice inside me that kept whispering, “you need to stop drinking”, that I was able to get on top of my mental health issues and drastically improve the quality of my life.

I’ve since learned why alcohol is so detrimental to mental health. In this blog, I’m sharing five ways it messed with mine:

1. The trade off – Feel better to feel worse

This is what happens when we drink to cope. We get a short-lived sense of relief as dopamine and other feel-good chemicals flood our system. But our brain, being the homeostasis seeking organism that it is, quickly counters all those feel-good chemicals with stress hormones. These stress hormones stick around a lot longer than the feel-goods which explains why, after drinking, we feel anxious, moody and flat. Not to mention tired, because alcohol disrupts our sleep.

The reality is that using alcohol to feel better actually leaves us feeling worse.

The kicker is the vicious cycle that develops when we’re not aware that drinking is making us feel worse. We drink to feel better. We wake up feeling anxious, low, and tired from last night’s drinking, and these crappy feelings hang over us all day. Come 5pm we think the way to remedy how we feel is a drink, and the cycle starts again.

2. Regular drinking can cause depression and anxiety

In my case, a traumatic birth experience triggered poor mental health which I then used alcohol to self-medicate. So, it was clear that my mental health was poor before my drinking really took off. But for many people, like Lucy, their mental health was fine until they started drinking regularly.

While Lucy was drinking, she was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, yet she hasn’t struggled with anxiety since quitting drinking. This left her wondering if she ever really had anxiety in the first place, or if it was purely alcohol-induced. She wrote about that here.

Alcohol can induce symptoms of anxiety and/or depression in a person who wouldn’t otherwise have those issues. This is because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that directly affects brain functioning and neural activity. We all know that alcohol is a mood-altering substance, but what many people aren’t aware of is that alcohol can profoundly and very negatively affect our mood long-term.

Drinking too much regularly and over time often leads to anhedonia. Simply put, anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure from things that would typically or previously have been enjoyable. Many people on the verge of sobriety will know exactly what this feels like. Things like watching a beautiful sunset, eating a delicious meal, or having a meaningful conversation with a loved one, just don’t register as particularly pleasurable anymore. Your world, which was previously full of colour, drains to grey.

In terms of inducing anxiety, it’s like I said in the trade-off section. Drinking disrupts the delicate chemical balance in your brain, and what goes up must come down. Stress hormones are what it uses to come down, which induce anxiety that you wouldn’t have experienced had you not drank.

3. Drinking worsens existing mental health issues

Self-medicating anxiety with alcohol leads to increased alcohol use (more on this below). Increased alcohol use then changes the physiology of the brain and leads to a depletion of neurotransmitters that it needs to reduce anxiety naturally. The result? You end up feeling more anxious and therefore ‘need’ more alcohol to medicate your anxiety.

This certainly happened to me. Before my drinking took off, my anxiety was bad but I never had panic attacks. It was only when I was drinking regularly to self-medicate, that the panic attacks started.

In terms of drinking to relieve depression, we’ve already covered anhedonia. Another way that alcohol makes depression worse is by depleting serotonin which is a key neurotransmitter when it comes to stabilising our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness.

4. Mental health issues make us more susceptible to developing a drinking problem

Research tells us that having an existing mental health issue makes us more likely to self-medicate it with alcohol. This is dangerous because changes in brain activity caused by poor mental health actually make us more vulnerable to using alcohol problematically. The changes in brain activity enhance alcohol’s rewarding effects, reduce awareness of its negative effects, and temporarily alleviate the unpleasant symptoms of the mental health issue. A perfect combination of effects that predispose us to becoming reliant on alcohol and using it problematically.

5. Alcohol can reduce the effectiveness of medication

I found that when I was drinking and taking medication for depression and anxiety, although my symptoms improved slightly, I was still depressed and anxious. A Thrivalist student who was taking anti-anxiety medication shared with us that in sobriety she felt her medication was finally working. Her comment switched on a light bulb in my head. In sobriety I have gone on antidepressant medication and it has worked well – much better than it ever did while I was drinking. Could alcohol have been the culprit?

Turns out the answer is a hell yes. Drinking can and often does counteract the benefits of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication and makes the side effects of the medication worse. Drinking alcohol while on this type of medication is generally not advised, but as far as I can tell, most people aren’t aware of that or of the fact that their mental health medication would be working a hell of a lot better if they ditched the booze. And for those people whose negative mental health is caused by alcohol, sobriety could mean that they don’t need that medication at all.

To wrap up, alcohol fuels negative mental health. If you have existing mental health issues, drinking makes them worse. If you don’t, drinking can cause them.

In my experience, sobriety has been the single most powerful choice I’ve made for my mental health. Removing alcohol allowed me to level the playing field to see what my mental health was like without the ups and downs and exacerbating effects of alcohol. Although my mental health issues didn’t resolve completely, my symptoms lessened dramatically. All the things I did to support myself (like therapy, exercise, breathwork etc.) actually stood a chance when I stopped counteracting their beneficial effects with alcohol.

So, if you’re struggling with your mental health, a few vinos is not just what the doctor ordered. In my experience, sobriety is.

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