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 your neurons start to fire when alcohol has not been in your system for a long enough time.
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.
How Bad is Your Anxiety?
Alcohol is a "dulling" coping mechanism that people use dangerously to deal with stress. When you stop drinking, your stress can come back strong. Take our free anxiety test to see how severe your anxiety is, and receive treatment recommendations to fight it.
Using Alcohol to Control Stress and Anxiety
The problems with quitting alcohol and anxiety start long before you decided to quit. They started when alcohol was used as a coping tool for life. If you haven't yet, make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test to get a better understanding of how your anxiety and coping are related.
The key thing to understand is what "stress coping" is. People talk about stress coping techniques like meditation and yoga, but coping itself isn't a technique 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 so that your brain doesn't need to cope. That's why many people turn to alcohol for anxiety conditions such as:
- Panic Disorder
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
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 any ability to cope with even the most mild stresses. It will have forgotten how to deal with stress and anxiety, and so the moment you experience any type of extreme stress it's going to tell you that you need to drink, since drinking is the only way it knows how to cope.
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 brain stress. So much goes on in your brain that it alters your brain's chemicals and causes a host of physical changes that all lead to anxiety.
Interestingly, some doctors actually use an anxiety medication as a way to help people withdraw from 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:
- Create a Support Network You need to have people you're accountable to, and you need to have those you can call if you feel anxious. These need to be people that you don't mind sharing all of your thoughts with. A support network is important, because they'll help to make sure that you can find a coping outlet other than alcohol.
- Stay Active Boredom is the enemy of both sobriety and anxiety. When you're bored, your mind tends to focus too much on your stresses and your anxiety, and with nothing better to do you may find yourself looking for unhealthy outlets or letting your stress run wild. That's why you need to find things to do - preferably social, stress free activities that will occupy your time and your mind.
- Find Replacement Coping Strategies Remember, stress coping is a mindset and a mental ability. So in a way, it's hard to find true coping replacements. What you need to do is learn to overcome it mentally, which is something that takes practice. But until then, you can still find activities that make it easier to cope. Activities like exercise, skipping stones, and playing sports can all be beneficial, as can traditional relaxation strategies like yoga, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation.
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.
Take my free 7 minute anxiety test now to learn more about how to manage and cure your own anxiety. The test provides you with a free snapshot of your anxiety as it stands now and realistic ideas of where your anxiety can be in the next ten days with the right anxiety reduction strategies.
Novak, Amber, et al. Anxiety sensitivity, self-reported motives for alcohol and nicotine use and level of consumption. Journal of anxiety disorders (2003).
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.
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.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.