How Alcohol is CREATING Your Anxiety

And How to Overcome It.

Photo by Tonik on Unsplash

Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future.”
— Deepak Chopra

Networking events. First dates. Annual company conferences. There are so many situations that we often feel uncomfortable and experience anxiety.

Most of us will cope with this by looking for a bar or ordering a drink to “take the edge off.” This usually does the trick, and after two or three drinks, we are loose and ready to talk to just about anyone about anything.

So, what’s the big deal? Alcohol gets the job done.

It “greases the social skids” so we are able to perform in such situations and don’t have to endure the entire night with that feeling of anxiousness that would make time crawl like a snail across the face of an old grandfather clock.

And while some may guess that I’m going to tell you that “the problem” is that alcohol isn’t REALLY working for you in these situations, that would be incorrect.

The actual problem is that alcohol works TOO WELL in these situations. So well, in fact, that we become forced to need it to cope with similar situations for as long as we use it as our anxiety drug of choice.

To understand why this happens, let’s look at the relationship between alcohol and anxiety and how they are instigators of destruction for each other.

There are two different forms of anxiety — anxiety as a feeling and anxiety as a disorder. While there are only a small amount of people who are diagnosed with anxiety severe enough for it to be considered a disorder, anxiety as a feeling is something everyone has experienced at different times in life.

When this feeling of anxiety is ever-present and overwhelming to the point of not be able to do anything, this is known as social anxiety disorder or social phobia. As shared, only a small amount of people have this.

However, a lot of people have experienced something comparable in the form of anxiety as a feeling, as they felt shy or uncomfortable in various situations in which they had to meet new people or be the center of attention, e.g., networking events, first dates, public speaking opportunities.

The reason alcohol works so well in these situations is alcohol is a sedative and depresses our central nervous system. When we get anxious, our body typically has an increased heart rate and blood flow, and our brain begins to work at 100 mph.

Alcohol slows all that down and allows our brain to feel more comfortable. This reaction is very similar to that of benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that are used to actually treat anxiety disorders, so one can see why this is very appealing to use as a tool to overcome anxiety.

There are three major reasons, however, that alcohol is one of the worst things we can do to cope with this and a simple way to overcome it.

YOU CAN BECOME ADDICTED

This is clearly the most recognized reason. When you decide to use alcohol in social situations to cope with your anxiety, you are entering the dangerous loop of alcohol’s entrapment.

Due to alcohol’s cycle of endorphin and dynorphin creation in your brain, the more you drink, the more it will take for you to get the same level of effect over time, i.e., your tolerance increases. This creates a cycle in which you will now need three or four drinks in certain situations to feel comfortable, whereas in the past it only took you one or two.

Over time, those three or four can turn into five, six, or ten, and the next thing you know, you are at work functions and networking events slurring your words and possibly making a fool of yourself because it takes so much more alcohol to give you the same feeling of calm and relaxation.

If interested in the full scientific explanation of how this works, check out the AINYF article, The Science of WHY You Should Quitting Drinking Alcohol.

IT’S ACTUALLY MAKING IT WORSE

Alcohol directly affects your neurotransmitters, those small molecules in your brain that helps regulate the body’s function and behavior. When you drink, alcohol increases the amount of the stress hormone, cortisol, in your body. Cortisol is used in short term stress situations because it makes your body more alert and focused.

However, when you drink, the amount your body creates is abnormally high and stays with your body much longer than it would it if were created naturally. Your body doesn’t recognize the heightened cortisol immediately, due to the depressing effect alcohol is having on your central nervous system.

Because cortisol is what your body uses to go into the “fight or flight” mode, when it is created artificially due to alcohol consumption and there is neither fight nor flight to act upon, it will build up in your body and potentially turn into chronic stress.

This chronic stress, over time, can lead to a number of different health problems, with one of them being the development of more serious anxiety.

Added to this, short term alcohol use depletes your body’s vitamin B6 and folic acid supply. Your body uses this to help you cope with short term stressful situations, as they help regulate and keep your neurotransmitters stable by producing mood-boosting serotonin.

And even worse, long term alcohol use reduces the GABA-benzodiazepine receptor in your central nervous system, which it uses to help you cope with more long term stressful situations that you may experience, e.g., parenting stress, loss of a job, etc.

What happens when you couple these three effects is not only does it take more and more alcohol for your body to get the relief that alcohol was providing initially, but also, over time, you will find yourself slowly starting to feel more anxious and uneasy in situations in which you had no issues with in the past.

This is actually why some doctors are even beginning to question if drinking alcohol actually CREATES anxiety as opposed to just being an exacerbator of it. There is a relatively recent study done by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine that has given credence to this argument.

YOU NEVER GIVE YOURSELF A CHANCE TO OVERCOME YOUR ANXIETY ON YOUR OWN

As with anything used to bypass hard work, the problem with using alcohol to deal with your anxiety is that you never really address the underlying problem. Alcohol will make you feel better and get you through that specific moment, but it doesn’t allow you to build up the emotional fortitude to deal with the situation and not feel stressed.

Anything that is new and foreign to you can cause stress, as your body screams “DANGER” as its default response in unknown situations. It’s one of the defense mechanisms that has helped the human species survive for so long. But if you never fight through it without alcohol, you impair your ability to ever overcome it.

Here’s an analogy that may drive this home.

The very first time you got behind the wheel of a car, you probably experienced stress and were immensely afraid. However, with time, your brain became familiar with it and that sense of foreignness subsided.

Now, driving is something you do without even thinking about because you pushed through that feeling of stress and developed the technical and emotional skills to deal with it.

If we lived in the upside-down world of Stranger Things, and you were actually allowed to drink alcohol while learning to drive, you would immediately feel more relaxed and comfortable. You would be at ease behind the wheel much quicker and probably actually learn how to drive decently well under the influence.

However, when you then would try to drive without alcohol, the previous stress that you thought you had overcome would still be there and now probably much worse. Since you never faced this stressful situation uninebriated to allow your brain to adapt/grow, you would now need alcohol each time to alleviate the stress.

HOW TO OVERCOME THIS

Now, taking this back to the networking situation, if you force yourself to suffer through a few networking events and build your technical and emotional ability to overcome nervousness and fight through the awkwardness to improve your small-talk and story-telling ability, you would then be able to handle other similar stressful situations in the future because you will have previous experience doing so.

It is when you allow alcohol to rob you of these opportunities that you go through life always wondering if you will EVER feel comfortable in these situations. The answer is to this is no, UNLESS you are willing to face them without alcohol impeding your ability to improve and grow.

And while in the midst of a networking event, you may feel completely overwhelmed, uncomfortable, and super awkward, you should repeat to yourself that if you persevere, that feeling will go away, and you’ll be a networking pro in no time.

Apply this to the other stressful situations, and you’ll be surprised at how anxiety will slowly disappear, releasing you from the crutch of alcohol.

And if there’s any doubt you can do this, take solace.

You were able to overcome the stress of learning to drive without drinking (at least I hope), so this should be a piece of cake.