Alcohol and Stress

Paula H. Cookson LCSW
stressed woman with drink

An occasional drink of alcohol is nothing to be concerned about. Alcohol becomes a problem when use is habitual, excessive, or turns into a priority in your life. The slide into addiction is gradual. What starts out as a fun and relaxing way to unwind becomes a toxic source of stress and discord.

Dangers Of Drinking Away Stress

Sometimes, people turn to alcohol as a way to decrease stress or to manage stressful events in their life. In the beginning, it may seem alcohol helps because it acts as a central nervous system depressant. However, when drinking is used to quell stress, sometimes a complex, cyclical pattern begins in which alcohol is seen as a source of stress relief and also causes stress by wreaking havoc on the addict's life. As the impact of alcohol abuse takes its toll (physical distress, relationship issues, work challenges), stress increases, which in turn creates more dependency on alcohol to numb the emotional discomfort. This cyclical pattern is complex and difficult to break away from.

Excessive Use

When over-used, alcohol causes a variety of negative consequences that can impact physical and mental health and can put strain on relationships. While alcohol offers a stress-relieving detachment from problems temporarily, it acts as a false comfort, and the underlying stressors remain unresolved.

  • The long-term effects of alcohol abuse are increased potential for addiction and habituation, as well as physical, social, and financial consequences which can all become sources of long-term stress.
  • Alcohol abuse decreases one's perceived ability to tolerate discomfort, which reinforces habitual use. This reinforces the pattern of drinking to relieve stress while ramping up the stress itself.
  • Self-medicating with alcohol doesn't allow for true management of emotions and creates a stunted capacity for managing stress and other challenging emotions.
  • Over time, alcohol tolerance increases, and more alcohol is consumed to make up for the decreased effects, which in turn establishes a greater physiological and psychological dependency. As alcohol dependency progresses, the social, psychical, emotional, and mental effects also increase, which, in turn, causes added stress.

There isn't enough alcohol that can be consumed to satisfy the physiological requirements that one's body demands in late stage alcoholism. A paradoxical shift occurs in which the body requires a steady source of alcohol to avoid going into detoxification mode and becoming violently and dangerously ill, yet the toxic effects of the alcohol increase to deadly levels in which the body can no longer properly function, and the bodily systems begin to fail. At this stage of alcoholism, the stressful social devastation that has occurred in an alcoholic's life is extensive. Disconnection with family and friends is common, as well as financial distress as alcohol use becomes the priority over all aspects of life.

All of these factors cause increased stress, which is exactly what alcohol was used to mitigate in the first place. With increased stress, drinking increases, and the behavior becomes cyclical, with more stress triggering more alcohol intake, and more drinking triggering increased stress.

When and Where To Seek Help

If alcohol has become a priority in your life, if you have found yourself drinking more than you have in the past, or if you find you turn to alcohol to cope with stress, it may be time to seek help and support. There are many helpful resources available.

Addiction counselors are available in most areas, and listings for your area can be found online. If you aren't ready for substance abuse counseling, consider attending an Alcoholic's Anonymous meeting, or checking out the website.

Frequently, medical providers and psychiatrists can offer support and resources for recovery from alcohol abuse.

Journey To Recovery

Dealing with stress through alcohol abuse can have significant long-term effects, and the road to recovery is difficult. A key component of successful recovery is keeping yourself honest and accountable for your behaviors. Gaining the support of others will be important as you begin to experience emotions without the dulling effects of alcohol. It will be important to learn alternative coping strategies for dealing with stress to prevent relapse. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and ask others for support.

Alcohol and Stress