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Anxiety and alcohol: this is how drinking can increase your anxiety

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Amy Sedghi
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Over a third of us say we regret getting drunk after we’ve done it. Stylist explores the link between alcohol and anxiety.

“Initially I warmed to drinking because of the confidence element,” explains Tanya, 30, reminiscing about her late teen years when she was plagued with anxiety and painfully shy. “In the beginning, drinking almost alleviated that [anxiety]. I definitely used it as ‘liquid courage’.”

It’s a story many of us can relate to – who hasn’t necked a glass of wine or downed a shot for a magical boost of confidence and in a bid to numb anxious thoughts – especially when it comes to social situations? But, while it might give us a short lived surge, the blunt truth is that the anxiety only comes back the next day – and often with a bite. 

“Alcohol is considered a depressant,” explains Dr Sumera Shahaney, GP and head of clinical operations for the at-home health kit Thriva. “Initially, as your blood alcohol level rises, it causes a euphoric effect which acts as an antidepressant, but as it wears away it increases anxiety levels. Long term it can increase anxiety over time, even for moderate drinkers.”

There’s proof too that women are more likely to report feelings of regret after a boozy night. Findings from the Global Drugs Survey 2020 revealed that, on average, respondents regretted getting drunk a third of the time; for women, this was notably higher at almost 40%. Interestingly, women were also more likely than men to report increased anxiety the next day. 

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For Tanya, while her drinking didn’t look out of the ordinary or different to her peers, she was becoming painfully aware that she’d wake up the next day with a crippling sense of shame, alongside her hangover. “I’d play it off as a funny story,” she says, while in reality she was horrified at the situations she’d end up in: waking up with a guy or snatches of memory of her screaming on a street corner. “That was a real wake up call. I didn’t want to morph into this other person when I was drinking. That’s when I realised that actually I wanted to stop or cut down.”

Aged 26, she attended her first Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting and was surprised to see other young people from a mix of backgrounds; Tanya is a Londoner of Sri Lankan heritage and hopes speaking about her experiences will encourage more people of colour to also seek support and share their stories. “We all have these pre-judgments of what a person with an alcohol problem looks like,” she says, recalling how, even though her family and boyfriend at the time were supportive, their initial reaction to her seeking help from the group was of shock. She credits the sense of community at AA for her sobriety (three and half years in now): “One of the most empowering things was just not feeling alone in my experiences with alcohol.”

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“I would say around 90% of our followers mention anxiety as one of the reasons for exploring sobriety; it’s definitely a huge factor in the rise of sober curiosity,” says Millie Gooch, founder of Sober Girl Society (SGS) and author of The Sober Girl Society Handbook. Her platform has seen an increase of 21,000 members since the start of the year, with 7,000 of those signing up during Dry January.

“Lots of our followers who have questioned their drinking over the pandemic are feeling anxious about the world reopening because they are already feeling the pressure from friends and family to get back into the swing of drinking,” she tells Stylist, describing how the SGS virtual meet-ups to help ease sober and sober curious women back into socialising have been fully booked.

Tanya can relate to the concern many young women will feel as venues open and socialising is back on the cards. “When I stopped drinking, all of my social anxiety was running riot. I was so terrified of being in social situations. I realised having a drink in my hand was almost like a safety thing,” she says, describing that she had to relearn how to make friends soberly. She admits it wasn’t easy but the more she spoke honestly to the people around her about not drinking, the smoother it became.

Holly, 38, from Hampshire, is just over a month into her journey having not touched a drop since a prosecco-fuelled evening left her with no memory of walking home. It wasn’t a particularly bad hangover she says, nor a profound moment, but having questioned her relationship with alcohol since her early-to-mid-30s and experimented with Dry Januarys and Sober Octobers, she was keen to make a longer term change.

“I don’t like the term alcoholic, but I’m more than comfortable in saying I have a problematic relationship with alcohol, in that I use it in a way that is not healthy,” she says candidly. While physical hangovers would last a day, the emotional hangover, she says, could last three days or more. Bluntly put, she says: “An alcohol-fuelled anxiety trip is an absolute nightmare.”

Holly agrees that group gatherings can be tricky, but more so because she dreads the questions she’ll be asked about why she’s not drinking. “I think mindful drinking is gaining momentum and hopefully over time people will stop asking ‘What’s wrong with you?’” She adds with a hopeful smile: “It’s all about awareness.”

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“Anxiety and alcohol do have this very unhappy relationship with each other, and some people will experience the difficulty of that,” says Dru Jaeger, co-founder and director of programmes at Club Soda. Like Millie and the Sober Girl Society, he and Club Soda have had a flurry of interest for their programmes focused on social drinking post-lockdown. While increases in drinking during lockdown have been well reported, says Dru, those for whom drinking was largely about building social connections have found it easier to get their drinking under control.

He has some advice for anyone thinking of changing their drinking. “Really pay attention to the situations in which you tend to drink more than you’d want to and notice what’s going on in those,” he says. “We encourage people to come up with plans of how to cope in those situations, especially when it comes to anxiety.” Importantly, for those drinking excessively, stopping suddenly can be dangerous, warns Dr Shahaney.

“We drink for social connection, to deal with emotions and as part of our routines. Some of that drinking can be unproblematic and some of it can cause us difficulties,” adds Jaeger. He advises exploring other ways to deal with anxiety: “So you don’t have to rely on opening a bottle of wine or pouring yourself a drink when you’re anxious. Find other ways to self-soothe and to calm yourself.”

“For those who’ve felt very isolated over the past year, we would encourage people to go back to the pub,” he says with energy. “Go spend time with your friends and know you don’t have to drink alcohol to do that. That’s a really important thing.”

Tanya agrees, summing it up well: “I’m glad that I reframed that in my head, where I feel as though drink doesn’t add anything to my life. Everything I found fun while drinking, I can still do. I still go out clubbing until 3am (in non-Covid times). I can still do all those things.”

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