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How to Manage Anxiety Symptoms After Quitting Drinking Alcohol

Wendy M Yoder, Ph.D.
How to Manage Anxiety Symptoms After Quitting Drinking Alcohol

Alcoholism creates a serious problem with dependency. The brain starts to use alcohol as its primary tool to deal with stress, and your mind and body actually adapt to alcohol to the point where certain neurons in the brain start to fire to notify you that alcohol has not been in your system for long enough, and it wants you to have some soon.

That's why when you stop drinking, it's not uncommon to experience a range of terrible symptoms, including anxiety. It's even more common to find that after you've stopped drinking, anxiety makes you want to go back to alcohol.

Using Alcohol to Control Stress and Anxiety

The problems with quitting alcohol and anxiety start long before you decide to quit. They started when alcohol was used as a coping mechanism for dealing with stress.

The key thing to understand is what "stress coping" is. People talk about stress coping activities like meditation and yoga, but coping itself isn't an activity but a mental skill. It's the ability of your brain to overcome stress, and like a muscle it can be trained over time.

Alcohol Prevents Stress Coping

This is where alcohol can cause a serious problem. For many people, alcohol replaced your brain's need to learn to cope with stress on its own. Alcohol doesn't help you cope, it simply numbs emotions. That's why many people turn to alcohol for anxiety conditions such as:

You may not have turned to alcohol because you had anxiety, but everyone deals with day to day stresses, and when drinking these stresses are numbed, but not dealt with. It's like using a powerful painkiller on an open wound - you won't feel any pain, but the wound will keep bleeding.

Alcohol and Psychological Dependence

What happens is that once you've quit drinking alcohol - long after the withdrawal symptoms are over (which we'll get to in a second) - your brain is essentially left without healthy strategies for coping with even the most mild stresses. Your abiltiy to cope with stress without alcohol may have become weaker. Then, any time you are under stress, your natural instinct will be to go back towards alcohol as you may not have any other effective coping strategies. 

That's where the real problem comes in, and that's why those that want to quit drinking also need to start looking at how to regain those coping skills that they've lost. It's not just about whether you'll go back to alcohol - it's also about learning how to let smaller stresses not explode into larger stresses. Unless you regain your ability to cope with stress, the chances of developing an anxiety disorder remain high.

Alcohol Withdrawal and Anxiety

Of course, alcohol withdrawal itself can also cause anxiety and panic attacks. Withdrawal anxiety is complicated, but it essentially comes from the way your mind experiences the stress of losing out on alcohol. So much goes on in your brain that it alters your brain's chemicals and causes a host of physical changes that can lead to anxiety.

Interestingly, some doctors use anxiety medications to help people withdraw from alcohol when it’s been determined medically necessary due to the withdrawal effects of abruptly quitting alcohol. These medications - known as benzodiazepines - act on similar receptors, and can reduce the effects of withdrawal while simultaneously making it a bit easier to quit alcohol because you can wean off of the benzodiazepines in a way that is more difficult than with alcohol.

Quitting alcohol can also lead to long term anxiety from extended withdrawal symptoms, known as protracted withdrawal. This type of anxiety should be controlled with proper coping tips and recommendations from your doctor.

Overcoming Anxiety From Stopping Alcohol

Quitting drinking is always a difficult task, even if you were more of a casual drinker than an alcoholic. Alcohol's ability to replace normal stress coping causes it to interfere with your ability to respond in a healthy way with anxiety and stress, to the point where when you suffer from any anxiety it feels much more severe than it would if you hadn't had alcohol. This can even affect those that never intentionally used alcohol to cope with stress.

There are many different strategies for dealing with anxiety and panic attacks that are not specific to those that have stopped drinking. But the following are important as ways to prevent alcohol from causing too much anxiety:

The key is to not try to replace the effects of alcohol - you don't want something else that numbs your anxiety without helping you cope with it. What you're trying to do is reduce the impact of what happens to your brain when you're dealing with stress. These activities lessen the impact of stress and anxiety, and when you can weaken the effects of stress, you give your mind a better chance of regaining its own natural coping strength.

Article Resources
  1. Novak, Amber, et al. Anxiety sensitivity, self-reported motives for alcohol and nicotine use and level of consumption. Journal of anxiety disorders (2003).
  2. Litman, Gloria K., et al. Differences in relapse precipitants and coping behaviour between alcohol relapsers and survivors. Behaviour research and therapy 17.2 (1979): 89-94.
  3. Walter, Marc, et al. CLINICAL STUDY: Cortisol concentrations, stress-coping styles after withdrawal and long-term abstinence in alcohol dependence. Addiction biology 11.2 (2006): 157-162. 
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