Stress is a natural reaction that occurs in response to our everyday experiences, and we all have to deal with it from time to time
Whether it comes from our day-to-day responsibilities like work and family, or serious events such as illness or death, stress is an inevitable part of our lives.
Problems may occur, however, if you begin dealing with stressful situations using unhealthy methods, like turning to alcohol. This page will explore how using alcohol to cope with stress can cause further harm to your wellbeing while also outlining helpful ways to manage these feelings.
Stress and alcohol in our lives
In the short term, stress can actually benefit your health and can help you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates so that your body is ready to respond to the challenge you’re faced with. However, if these stress levels stay elevated for longer than necessary, they can cause a variety of symptoms that take a toll on your overall health and well-being.
Why is it unhealthy to use alcohol to cope with stress?
Having a drink to unwind at the end of a busy day is a common habit, and something many people do. But when you begin using alcohol as a crutch to cope with certain feelings and emotions, you have to ask yourself whether this seemingly harmless habit has the potential to make your stressful situation worse by making you reliant on alcohol as your prefered way of coping with stress. As the weeks and months go on you will need to drink more and more alcohol to feel the same relaxation you used to after one drink.
What is stress?
When we talk about stress, we’re referring to the feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body’s natural reaction to a challenge or demand.
Certain types of stress, in small bursts, can be positive thing. Such as when it’s needed to avoid danger or meet a deadline. Sometimes we all need an extra hard push in the right direction.
However, issues can occur when you find that you’re constantly stressed. Not only is chronic stress mentally exhausting, it can have adverse effects on you physically too. Stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations – whether they’re real or not. A chemical reaction takes place – known as “fight” or “flight” and when you feel threatened, this reaction allows you to respond in order to protect yourself.
Feelings and emotions associated with stress:
Stress can affect all aspects of your life, including your emotions, behaviours, mental ability, and physical health. No part of the body is immune. Sometimes you might not even realise that the issues you are experiencing are a result of feeling anxious and stressed.
Psychological signs of stress:
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Problems with your memory or concentration
- Poor decision making
Emotional signs of stress include:
- Loss of emotional control
- Difficulty relaxing
- Low self-esteem
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Stomach problems (diarrhoea, constipation, and nausea)
- Low energy
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Muscle tension
- Frequent colds and infections
- Loss of libido
- Sweaty hands and feet
- Clenched jaw
- Teeth grinding
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Behavioural symptoms of stress include:
- Changes in appetite — either not eating or eating too much
- Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
- Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
- Exhibiting more nervous behaviours, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing
- How does alcohol relieve stress?
Alcohol works by blocking chemical signals between brain cells, which results in feelings of intoxication, including impulsive behaviour, slurred speech, poor memory, and slowed reflexes. Its sedating qualities make you feel relaxed and numb both physically and mentally, however, consuming alcohol doesn’t actually rid you of the causes of stress, it simply masks the problem.
Despite its calming effects, it’s very important to be aware that alcohol can actually contribute to feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, and make stress harder to deal with overall. If you’re drinking more than the UK Chief Medical Officers’ (CMOs) recommended 14 units a week, it may be time to look at alternative coping mechanisms.
Why does alcohol make stress worse?
Although you might make you feel relaxed, this is really down to the effect of alcohol on your brain and body. It’s important to remember that the effects of alcohol are temporary. If you choose to avoid the real cause of your stress, you’ll find yourself struggling to cope again as soon as you’re sober. This will lead to excessive drinking in order to rid yourself of the feelings and emotions that are causing you discomfort.
Reacting to Stress
When you’re feeling anxious or scared, your body releases stress hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. This is helpful for those that need a little nudge when it comes to getting things done. But it might also cause physical symptoms such as a faster heartbeat or sweating, and if you’re constantly stressed this can become a problem.
Studies have found that cortisol interacts with the brain’s reward systems, which enhances alcohol’s reinforcing effects. This means that you would need to consume greater amounts to achieve the desired feeling. Alcohol elevates the brain’s cortisol level and ultimately altering the brain’s chemistry and resetting what the body considers to be “normal.”
Managing stress isn’t a life skill that we’re taught at a young age, which is why we’re sometimes caught off guard when it comes to dealing with real-life situations. Some people are able to take everything in their stride while others become anxious almost immediately.
If any of the reactions below seem familiar to you, then it’s likely that you’re not coping well with stress. Using unhealthy coping mechanisms, can give way to a range of other issues, such as alcoholism or addiction. Many of the reactions below we do unconsciously, so it’s important you recognise them when they do occur.
If you’re feeling unexplained pain or muscle tension, especially in your neck and shoulders, you may be reacting to something by clenching your fists or your jaw.
Our digestive system is linked to our moods, so feelings of stress might trigger overeating or undereating, resulting in weight loss or weight gain.
Stress can often cause you to be short-tempered, and you may find yourself more confrontational with people even without being provoked. If you find yourself getting angry over something insignificant, it means you haven’t taken the time to deal with the source of your stress, and so it is manifesting in other ways.
While crying may be cathartic every once in a while, stress may trigger long periods of sadness and crying, sometimes without warning. It may be things completely unrelated to your stress that leaves you in tears.
Sometimes stress may be too much to take. You might avoid the problem, call in sick to work, feel hopeless or simply give up. Chronic stress can be a factor in the development of depression or anxiety disorders.
Even if you haven’t had a drink for a while, you might discover that it’s a quick and easy way to relax when you’re under pressure. In fact, stress is a leading cause of alcohol relapse with many people turning to drink to avoid feeling burdened by their emotions.
Side effects of stress
We spoke earlier on in this article about the signs of stress, and the longer those stress indicators linger, the more likely they are to become side effects. Excess stress can result in:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar
- Fertility problems
- Loss of libido
Different types of stress
Most of the time, you’ll know what’s causing you stress, but other times you may not realise the affect that something is having on your mental and physical wellbeing. A helpful way of identifying what’s triggering your stress is to make a list of all the different areas in your life. You may discover things that you hadn’t realised were an issue.
Financial stress is a huge burden for many people, with many drowning their sorrows and looking for
Family life can be stressful in many ways. Whether it’s fractured relationships, childcare or
The workplace is considered to be the central hub of stress for many people. Whether it’s a fast-paced environment, tight deadlines or not getting along with co-workers.
Health problems can cause a great deal of stress, but what many people fail to realise is that the added stress can do a lot more to worsen any existing conditions.
Social media has grown in popularity fairly recently and while many might underestimate its impact, it is appearing consistently high on the list of things that cause stress, especially for young adults and Millennials. The term ‘technostress’ has been coined to express this unique type of stress.
Dealing with legal matters, whether it’s family or business-related, can be extremely stressful. Self-medicating to deal with these situations is not uncommon.
Image by Bastian Riccardi from Pixabay
How stress and drinking alcohol creates a vicious cycle
Stress and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand. Stress can lead to excessive drinking, but excessive drinking can also lead to more stress, as well as anxiety and depression. If you’re using one to deal with the other, you may find yourself stuck in a vicious cycle before you know it.
Drinking more than planned
Once you begin to drink alcohol as a way of dealing with stress it’s easy to fall into the habit of using it to help you cope with other issues.
Alcohol is a sedative and depressant, and although it produces calming effects, excessive drinking can also result in other mental and physical health problems. The Jellinek curve was coined in the 1950s and has since been referred to regularly when discussing alcohol abuse. It begins by talking about the start of a drinking problem and then moves through physical problems like neglecting food and appearance, and mental problems like guilt, resentment, and a change in moral compass.
However, the Jellinek curve doesn’t end at the bottom with “excessive drinking”, it continues moving upwards into the “rehabilitation” phase.
Coping with the source of the problem
Once you’ve found a coping mechanism you think works, it’s easy to become reliant on that way of dealing with things like stress. While it may have started off as drinking to forget a stressful day at work, that can very quickly turn into a problem.
In order to prevent stress, it’s important to address the actual cause of it. While alcohol will mask the symptoms, it won’t get rid of what’s triggering them.
People often find it difficult to be forthcoming about their feelings and emotions but opening up about things that are troubling you can do a world of good.
Coping with the symptoms of stress without alcohol:
If you’ve been using alcohol as a way of dealing with stress, you’re in danger of becoming dependant on it to get you through difficult times. There are many healthy ways to manage stress that won’t result in any potential harm. Making sure you try just a couple of these things a week could reduce your stress levels significantly.
Any form of exercise is beneficial to your overall health and wellbeing. People who have a regular exercise programme are less depressed, less stressed, less anxious and have more self-esteem. When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins, also known as ‘happy hormones’. Your brain naturally produces this calming and soothing effect, without the need for alcohol.
Relaxation techniques such as meditation are a fantastic way to learn how to clear your mind and breath through the stress. Making time for yourself will allow you to relax without any outside interference so you can truly focus on de-stressing.
Share the stress
Sharing your thoughts and feelings with another person is so invaluable. Not only will it provide you with a great sense of relief, it helps others better understand your situation and what you’re going through. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone you know, it’s a good idea to seek regular therapy in order to prevent these feelings building up.
It’s important to set boundaries when it comes to people or situations in your life that might be contributing to your stress. Recognising when you’ve had enough and need some space is very important.
When does stress need medical treatment and what can you do to treat it?
If you find yourself using potentially damaging methods to deal with your stress, then it’s probably time to consider seeking alternative treatments to help alleviate that.
Therapies such as CBT, mindfulness, yoga and acupuncture have long been used to help combat feelings of stress and help you react more effectively to the situations behind it.
While there are available medications to help people cope with stress and anxiety, this isn’t always a recommended solution, as it does nothing to target the main source of stress and may end up becoming addictive.
If you’ve noticed that your drinking has become much heavier and more frequent, or you can’t get through your day without a drink to keep you calm, then you should seek help sooner rather than later. You may not be aware that your use of alcohol is only contributing to any feelings of depression and anxiety, while you think it’s helping you deal with stress, it’s doing just the opposite. Read more about why residential rehab might be the right option for you.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | August 19, 2021