Alcohol is seen as a way to relieve stress, anxiety and sadness. But is it the chicken or the egg?

Feb 07, 2023
chicken and egg

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It’s an age-old conundrum, a question to which there is no clear answer. But it is more clear cut when it comes to anxiety / depression and drinking alcohol. Booze may not cause anxiety, but it certainly makes it worse. Let me explain…


Long day at the office? Unwind with a glass of wine when you get home.


Another hellish commute? (yes, some people are still commuting!) Have a G&T or two on the train to make it more bearable – those cans they sell at the station are just the ticket.


Worried about money (aren’t we all, at the moment?) Nothing you can do about it right now, so have a drink to unwind and forget about it till the morning.


Had a shock? A brandy’s just the thing.


Alcohol leads to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter allowing us to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation.


Many years ago, I had the horrible task of telling a friend that someone they were close to had been killed in an accident. I bought a bottle of gin on my way to her flat, thinking that would help cheer her up. (Sorry, Debbie, that was probably the worst thing I could have done, but I knew no better at the time.)


It is true that alcohol can help, but only in the very short term. And by short term, I mean 20-30 minutes. No-one is going to deny the pleasurable warm feeling we get from our favourite tipple. We definitely get a buzz from it. That is because alcohol leads to the release of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for allowing us to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation.


We can get a dopamine rush from all sorts of things like the smell of freshly baked bread or cake. Scientists did an experiment with a group of people going into a wine bar and ordering a bottle of wine to share. There were increases in dopamine when they ordered the wine, and when the waiter brought the glasses, but the biggest spike was when the waiter pulled the cork out of the bottle. That spike was actually higher than the one they got from drinking the wine! And these natural spikes in dopamine are completely harmless, and very pleasurable. Dopamine is a good thing.


But with alcohol, dopamine is accompanied by dynorphin. Also known as ‘The Downer’, it brings on negative emotions.


Once the alcohol gets into the blood stream, the body reacts by releasing a chemical called dynorphin. It is important to note that the body does this in reaction to the alcohol in the blood stream and not the dopamine. The release of dynorphin is the body’s reaction to a toxin in the bloodstream.


Dynorphin, like dopamine, is a neurotransmitter,  but it is associated with negative emotional states. It is a ‘downer’, and we respond by wanting more dopamine to counteract it… hence the second (and third and fourth) drink.


Dynorphin brings a couple of friends to the party; Cortisol and Adrenaline and these two lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety.


You know that thing when, after a few drinks the night before, you wake at 3 or 4 in the morning with a racing heart and feeling really anxious? That’s the Cortisol and Adrenaline doing their thing, which would be fine if you were facing immediate physical danger, but you’re not, you’re trying to sleep! And what do we do when we can’t sleep properly? We stress about it, releasing even more of these stress hormones. Talk about a vicious circle! Whilst alcohol isn’t necessarily the cause of the stress, it will certainly make it worse.


When people reduce their alcohol intake, their stress and anxiety levels reduce too


Once you cut back on the booze, most people are able (with appropriate medical supervision, of course), to reduce the medication they are taking for high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.


So whilst we may never get an answer to the chicken and egg conundrum, the role of alcohol in exacerbating stress and anxiety is very clear.


If you suffer from stress, anxiety or depression, could it be that alcohol is, if not the root cause, at least a contributory factor? When you are in a funk, it can be difficult to see a way out – if you could do with some support, then just book a FREE Discovery Call and let’s talk about how I might be able to help.


If you have got this far, chances are that you are concerned that you may have a problem with alcohol. Let's talk - you have absolutely nothing to lose and so much to gain!



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