How Does Stress Affect Alcohol Consumption?
While many people turn to healthy, adaptive stress management techniques, such as exercising or taking part in relaxing activities like yoga or meditation, others may turn to potentially risky stress management strategies, such as using alcohol to cope with stress.
Researchers have conducted studies to take a look at the relationship between stress and alcohol consumption. One study published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism found that there was a relationship between stressors and heavy drinking. The more stressors people experienced, the more likely they were to drink heavily. This was especially true for men.
Furthermore, a research report that reviewed several different studies found that there is a link between stress and alcohol use disorders, which is the clinical term for an alcohol addiction. While people will vary in their drinking habits, there is evidence in the research that those who experience significant stress are likely to increase their alcohol consumption.
Is It Okay To Drink Alcohol To Release Stress?
Many people enjoy a drink from time-to-time when at a special event or out with friends. For some people, a nice dinner out, followed by a glass of beer or wine, is a way to unwind from a busy week and relieve stress.
When drinking occurs in moderation, which is defined as up to two drinks per day for men and one per day for women, there isn’t much risk associated with drinking for stress relief. However, when drinking is done in excess, and it’s a person’s only form of stress relief, there is a risk of problems.
For instance, drinking heavily, which is defined as a man consuming more than four drinks in a single day or 14 in a week, or a woman consuming more than three drinks in a single day or seven in a week, increases the risk that a person will develop an alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction.
Once a person becomes addicted to alcohol, using alcohol during times of stress is a problem. Paradoxically, drinking can lead to worse stress levels once a person develops an alcohol use disorder.
How Does Alcohol Cause Stress?
There is a bi-directional relationship between alcohol and stress. On the one hand, stress can increase alcohol consumption. On the other hand, alcohol consumption can lead to increased stress levels.
In fact, long-term alcohol misuse can actually change the physiological functioning of the brain, leading to increased stress levels. Studies have shown that chronic, heavy drinkers show higher levels of anxiety in response to a stressor when compared to those who do not drink or who only drink moderately.
This happens because alcohol leads to the release of stress hormones like cortisol. This changes the way that a person perceives stressful situations.
Additionally, alcohol misuse can create added stress in a person’s life. For instance, being arrested for drunk driving or having relationship problems as a result of heavy drinking creates even more stress.
What Does Alcohol Do To The Body?
Emotional stress and alcohol can go hand-in-hand, but it’s also important to remember that alcohol physically stresses the body. As the CDC warns, long-term alcohol misuse can lead to numerous health problems, including immune system damage, high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive problems, dementia, stroke, liver disease, and various types of cancer.
Stress Drinking And Alcohol Use Disorder
The problem with stress drinking is that it can lead to the development of an alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction. Having a drink on a special occasion or occasionally having a drink or two to unwind during social functions will not necessarily lead to an alcohol use disorder; however, ongoing, heavy drinking in response to stress increases the risk of alcohol use disorder, which is a legitimate medical condition and a brain disorder that makes it difficult to stop drinking.
How To Deal With Alcohol Use Disorder
If you have been drinking to cope with stress and find that you are unable to cut back or stop drinking, you may have an alcohol use disorder. The best way to deal with an alcohol use disorder is to seek treatment.
Alcohol use disorder is typically treated with behavioral interventions like counseling, as well as specific medications designed to help people manage alcohol withdrawal and cravings. The term medication assisted treatment for alcohol use is used to describe medications used in the treatment of alcohol addiction.
In many cases, people who take medication to treat alcohol use disorder also participate in counseling to help them develop strategies for staying committed to sobriety, and to address underlying emotional or mental health factors that contribute to alcohol misuse.
Support groups, such as AA meetings, can also be helpful for people who are in recovery from alcohol use disorder. In these meetings, people can learn from others coping with similar challenges.
Healthy Alternatives To Cope With Stress
If you have been misusing alcohol to cope with stress or are in treatment for alcohol use disorder, it’s important to develop healthy stress management strategies. Some healthy coping strategies include:
- Seeking social support from friends or family members who are skilled at lending a listening ear
- Following a nutritious diet
- Relaxing your muscles with strategies such as a warm bath, gentle stretching, a massage, or progressive muscle relaxation
- Following an adequate, consistent sleep schedule
- Practicing meditation to relieve stress and promote healthier sleep
- Making time for exercise
- Spending time outdoors
- Engaging in activities that you enjoy