Alcohol is considered a negative coping strategy. Many people turn to alcohol in order to deal with life stresses. They try to dull the pains of living and use alcohol to provide temporary relief from some of their worst symptoms.
Of course, alcohol itself is a poor coping tool for anxiety, and alcohol withdrawal can cause significant coping impairment that may lead to severe anxiety.
Healthy Coping for Anxiety
Alcohol withdrawal can be so severe that some people turn back to alcohol simply to avoid the anxiety. You need a better coping strategy. You need an anxiety cure.
Take my anxiety test to learn more.
Alcohol and the Causes of Anxiety
Alcohol withdrawal can cause anxiety on its own. The biggest concern, however, is alcohol making your normal anxiety symptoms worse. That's why it's so important to commit to an anxiety reduction system whether or not you're drinking. My 7 minute anxiety test is the best place to start.
Most people focus on one issue with regards to alcohol withdrawal and anxiety. But there are actually several forgotten reasons that alcohol can lead to extreme anxiety symptoms. Causes include:
Excitable Central Nervous System
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 - starts firing all sorts of neurotransmitters and chemicals. This puts a considerable amount of stress on your brain function, 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. There are 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 difficult and often very stressful to deal with.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, it's not uncommon to find that several 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, it makes your mind more anxious.
Loss of Coping
The above three examples are the main medical reasons that people experience severe anxiety while withdrawing from alcohol, especially the activation of the CNS. When the mind is firing and the brain is under stress, anxiety is nearly always the result.
However, one commonly forgotten 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 dulls stress so that your brain no longer needs to cope with it. Once the alcohol has gone, your mind is essentially unable to figure out how to cope with stress anymore, and severe anxiety is often the result.
Alcohol Contributes to Anxiety
While alcohol can cause anxiety for all of the reasons listed above, alcohol most commonly makes anxiety worse. Those that are used to drinking alcohol regularly and also suffer from anxiety are more likely to have severe anxiety symptoms, because they're starting from a higher baseline.
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
The best thing you can do is get yourself checked in to some type of alcohol rehabilitation center. These places are trained to handle the effects of withdrawal and coach you through the process. Alcohol withdrawal can be very tricky business, especially if you have been a heavy drinker for a significant period of time, and it's best left in the hands of experts.
There are several strategies that you or your doctors may employ. Because alcohol withdrawal can be severe, being in touch with a doctor is very important. They may tell you to:
- Withdraw Slowly - Most people quit cold turkey, but often the body isn't ready to quit that quickly. A slow, gradual reduction is often more valuable. The only problem is that many people cannot control themselves when they drink. That is why rehabilitation centers can help, since they can ensure that you're detoxing correctly.
- Replacement Medications - There are some medicines that seem to inhibit the effects of alcohol withdrawal, and the most common happens to be an anxiety medication. Your doctor may prescribe you benzodiazepines. These drugs come with their own risks, but they do appear to reduce withdrawal symptoms.
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.
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.
I've helped many people that turned to alcohol recover from their anxiety. I start them all off with my free anxiety test - a test that looks at your symptoms and uses comparison tables to see how your treatments need to be crafted.
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Roelofs, Sarah MGJ. Hyperventilation, anxiety, craving for alcohol: a subacute alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Alcohol 2.3 (1985): 501-505.
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.
Roelofs, Sarah M., and Gerard M. Dikkenberg. Hyperventilation and anxiety: alcohol withdrawal symptoms decreasing with prolonged abstinence. Alcohol 4.3 (1987): 215-220.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.