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Why anxiety & mood disorders can make alcohol symptoms worse

mental healthanxietydepressionstressalcoholmood disorder • 3 min read • May 18, 2023 9:15:00 AM • Written by: Kat Smith

Anxiety and mood disorders such as depression can impact many different areas of your health, and—in some cases—increase your risk of co-occurring health issues. For example, anxiety and depression can raise the likelihood of alcohol use disorder. Recent research suggests that this risk is attributed to a higher frequency of alcohol symptoms in those with these mood disorders. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the relationship between mood disorders and alcohol use and the potential impact of long-term alcohol use on your mental health.

Co-occurrence of anxiety or mood disorders and alcohol use disorder is very common.

There is an established connection between mood disorders and alcohol use disorder (AUD). About 20-40% of people with mood disorders like anxiety and depression have AUD compared to only 5% of the general population.

The same level of drinking can have a much stronger impact on those with mood disorders than those without.

Research has shown that at similar levels of use, individuals with mood disorders are more likely to become dependent on alcohol than the general population. In fact, this trend remains true for other substances as well, such as nicotine. This trend is known as the harm paradox—disadvantaged groups tend to experience worse effects from potentially harmful substances like drugs and alcohol.

Those with mood disorders are more likely to:

  • Find that a usual number of drinks has less of an effect over time.
  • Have difficulty cutting down or stopping drinking.
  • Have periods when they’ve ended up drinking more than intended.
  • Have trouble sleeping when the effects of alcohol wear off.
  • Have difficulty at work, school, or social situations due to drinking.
  • Be in situations with an increased risk of injury while drinking or after drinking.
  • Continue drinking despite trouble with family or friends.
  • Get into physical altercations while intoxicated.
  • Continue to drink despite alcohol-related health problems.
  • Give up enjoyable or important activities to drink.

These effects are also compounded in individuals with multiple mood disorder diagnoses. For example, those who experience both anxiety and depression tend to have higher levels of alcohol related symptoms than those with just a single mood disorder.

Safe drinking levels for individuals with anxiety or depression may differ.

Because the same amount of alcohol can have much higher long-term risks for those with mood disorders than those without, “safe” drinking recommendations may not hold true for everyone. The CDC defines drinking in moderation as consuming 2 or less alcoholic drinks per day for men and 1 or less alcoholic drinks per day for women on days when alcohol is consumed. However, these guidelines do not account for co-occurring disorders that can increase the risk of alcohol dependence, which can quickly cause drinking to get out of control.

Alcohol related symptoms and the risk of AUD also varies depending on several other factors, such as family history, gender, and income.

Alcohol can amplify the symptoms of mood disorders.

It is also important to recognize that alcohol itself is a depressant that can affect neurological functions and exacerbate or manifest existing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Many individuals will use alcohol as a means of self-medicating anxiety or depression because alcohol does temporarily help to forget the underlying stressors that trigger mood disorders. However, over time, alcohol actually impairs the brain’s ability to respond to stress, so anxiety symptoms are likely to become worse with continued alcohol use.

If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, you do not have to suffer in silence. Talk therapy can help you identify healthy, effective coping mechanisms so you can reduce your risk of participating in potentially harmful behaviors like alcohol abuse. Walmart Health Virtual Care can help you get in touch with a licensed therapist quickly and confidentially, so you can get the care you need when you need it.

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Kat Smith