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Alcohol Withdrawal Can Cause Severe Anxiety Symptoms

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
Alcohol Withdrawal Can Cause Severe Anxiety Symptoms

Alcohol is considered a potentially harmful coping strategy. Many people turn to alcohol in order to deal with life stress. They try to dull the pains of living and use alcohol to provide temporary relief. Others simply drink as a way of helping them to feel comfortable in social situations.

The problem with using alcohol as a coping strategy, however, is that it can have many negative, unintended health consequences and can also worsen your anxiety in the long-run. 

Alcohol and the Causes of Anxiety

Alcohol withdrawal can cause anxiety on its own. When a person drinks often, their minds and bodies start to depend on alcohol. Chemicals in the body have adapted to alcohol’s presence. If they go without alcohol for too long - often about 2 to 4 days, but the exact time frame varies - their bodies start to experience withdrawal - a series of symptoms that come from your body trying to adapt to the absence of alcohol. 

Alcohol withdrawal can lead to many different symptoms, some of which are very physical, such as nausea, headache, changes in heart rate, and more. One such symptom is anxiety - and your anxiety can be worsened due to the presence of these physical symptoms. There are actually several reasons that alcohol withdrawal can lead to extreme anxiety symptoms. Causes include:

Excitable Central Nervous System (CNS)

The primary cause of alcohol withdrawal is an excitable CNS. When your body goes through withdrawal of alcohol (or any drug that causes dependency), your brain - which has become used to the presence of alcohol - experiences alterations in its neurotransmitter activity. This may trigger a stress response in your brain, which ultimately leads to severely increased anxiety. This is the primary cause of alcohol withdrawal anxiety.

Fear of the Withdrawal Symptoms

The withdrawal symptoms themselves can be incredibly frightening. They include aches, pains, shakes, and numerous symptoms that can cause significant physical problems. Those physical problems can lead to their own immediate anxiety, because the symptoms themselves can be uncomfortable and often very stressful to deal with.

Physical Stress

For reasons that are not entirely clear, it's not uncommon to find that physical stress on your mind and body can lead to severe mental stress. Essentially, when your body is under stress because of the physical effects of anxiety (or alcohol withdrawal itself), it makes your more anxious and less equipped to cope with that anxiety. 

Loss of Coping

In addition to these, another overlooked reason that people experience severe anxiety during withdrawal is because alcohol has caused them to lose their original coping ability. Stress coping is a skill - a skill that you may not even know you have. When you don't use the skill for a long enough time, you lose it.

That's where alcohol can create a significant problem. Alcohol is used by many as a strategy to cope with stress. But then they become dependent on alcohol as a way of reducing stress. If they come to a point where they need to stop drinking, they will have lost one of their most powerful coping resources and may struggle to find replacement coping strategies. 

Alcohol Contributes to Anxiety

Alcohol use is often linked to anxiety: specifically, people with anxiety are more likely to use alcohol. That is because alcohol is a depressant with sedating effects, and those with anxiety often find it useful for calming themselves down. Keep in mind, however, that it is not an effective coping strategy. It is a temporary one that can cause severe problems not only with withdrawal, but also after the alcohol has worn off. 

That's one of the main reasons that it's so important to make sure that those with anxiety avoid heavy drinking. Not only do you lose your coping ability, but if you do decide to stop drinking alcohol eventually, the long term consequences could be very problematic.

Ways to Reduce Anxiety During Alcohol Withdrawal

If you are experiencing symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, it is important to consult with your doctor about the best way forward. Your doctor may recommend inpatient treatment at a hospital or rehabilitation center. These places are trained to handle the effects of withdrawal and coach you through the process. Keep in min that alcohol withdrawal can be very difficult process, especially if you have been a heavy drinker for a significant period of time. Severe withdrawal can lead to delirium, seizures and even death - so this is best left in the hands of medical experts.

There are several strategies that you or your doctors may employ, in helping you through the process of withdrawal. They may tell you to:

Stress control and healthy living is also important, and it's not a bad idea to make sure that you're around people to help you control your emotions during the withdrawal process. There are some people that get severe physical symptoms during withdrawal, and having someone there can be very valuable.

After the Withdrawal

Few people turn to alcohol for no reason. Addiction is a complex issue, but many people become addicted as a result of their stresses in life. If you need any help recovering from alcohol, consider calling your local Alcoholics Anonymous or a therapist to help you walk through how to successfully quit your addiction. 

That's why your next step after you have finished withdrawing from alcohol is to get help for your anxiety. If you truly want to become less dependent on alcohol in the future and live a happier life, curing anxiety is the most important thing you can do.

Article Resources
  1. Roelofs, Sarah MGJ. Hyperventilation, anxiety, craving for alcohol: a subacute alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Alcohol 2.3 (1985): 501-505.
  2. Johnston, Amanda L., et al. Increased severity of alcohol withdrawal in in-patient alcoholics with a co-existing anxiety diagnosis. British journal of addiction 86.6 (1991): 719-725.
  3. Roelofs, Sarah M., and Gerard M. Dikkenberg. Hyperventilation and anxiety: alcohol withdrawal symptoms decreasing with prolonged abstinence. Alcohol 4.3 (1987): 215-220. 
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