If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, you’re not alone. In 2019, 14.5 million people qualified has having a substance use disorder. In the United States, incidents of alcohol abuse have gone up, with many of us relying on alcohol to cope with stress, to relax after work, to deal with difficult situations, or otherwise as an alternative to more healthy coping mechanisms. In fact, 1 in 6 U.S. adults binge drink at least one a month – putting themselves, their mental health, and their physical health in danger.
While substance use disorders are complicated and often stem from biological (genetic and epigenetic), behavioral, and exposure factors, stress is considered one of the largest contributing factors. People use alcohol as a coping mechanism, and that results in feeling worse, in more stress, in poor decision-making, and in health problems – all of which negatively impact your mental health.
Stress is considered a leading contributor to preventable death in the United States. It contributes to physical and mental health disorders, increases vulnerability to health problems, and increases vulnerability to addiction. It influences weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and even alcohol abuse and addiction.
However, it does so in several different ways. For example, many people turn to alcohol for relief from stress. But, stress contributes to conditions in the brain that make addiction more likely.
Changes in the Brain – Stress creates cortisol, which reduces serotonin, reduces the speed of neurotransmission in the brain, and reduces feelings of pleasure. Most people know what it’s like to experience a sudden rush of stress, but few people realize that it impacts the brain in myriad ways. For example, people experiencing stress are more likely to make impulsive decisions, because the inhibitory part of the brain is slowed down. People who are stressed are also more likely to experience mood swings and anger and irritability – which can alienate friends and family and cause you to be more stressed. So, stress can create a vicious cycle of causing you to make things worse – which eventually results in looking for a way out. This “Stress response” also results in changes to the hypothalamus gland, which leads to changes in the central nervous system, adrenal system, and cardiovascular system. Eventually, this creates complex changes in the brain and body, with people experiencing significant physical and mental side effects. In most cases, the primary effect is feeling “down” or “depressed”, which also elevates the risks of alcohol abuse and addiction. It is this response that leads to phenomena such as stress eating, which is, in turn, closely related to stress drinking.
Sensation-Seeking – Changes in the brain lead to a phenomenon known as sensation seeking. Here, people who are under large amounts of stress seek out activities and behaviors that are very likely to get them to feel good. Very stressed people are more likely to make impulsive, poorly thought-out decisions to feel good – even if those decisions result in feeling worse at a later point. The result is that people who are chronically stressed are significantly more likely to binge drink, more likely to go out partying, and less likely to say no when offered something stronger or more alcohol.
Self-medication is the concept of using drugs or alcohol to attempt to feel better or to get rid of symptoms. So, people are stressed at work, and they start having a glass of alcohol to unwind when they get home. Before they know it, it’s habit and they have the glass automatically, even if they don’t “need” it. Then, they start to feel stressed when they don’t have it. Tolerance sets in and one glass is no longer enough to relax after a bad day. Things escalate. In one study, people who drank after work normally had two or more alcoholic drinks per day.
Self-medication also extends to more than just stress after work. People drink to cope with stress following an accident, following a surgery, when a family member gets sick, or when they’re struggling with bills or job loss. This can result in not quitting when the stress resolves itself, eventually leading to addiction.
Most people drink for pleasure seeking. A smaller subset drink for stress relief. The latter set are normally less obvious about drinking, more likely to slowly build up tolerance over time, and more likely to appear normal, even when heavily addicted. People who drink for stress are very likely to drink as part of their normal routine, to drink at work to cope, and to drink to make activities such as dealing with something stressful, social activity, or similar possible. It’s not a fun thing, it’s necessary for them to function normally. Stress drinking is also very common in individuals who qualify as “high functioning alcoholics”. Here, the individual is fully dependent on alcohol, but most people don’t notice except that person is more prone to mood swings and irritability.
However, pleasure-seeking drinkers also rely on alcohol to deal with stress, they’re just less likely to do so until things get very bad. For example, after a car accident or a family loss. This can result in sudden drinking to cope with stress with spirals out of control. However, pleasure drinkers also put themselves at risk through pleasure-seeking, where they wait till the weekend and binge drink to attempt to have fun to cope with a week full of stress. That can result in significant alcohol abuse, which people are more likely to see as “normal” because it’s only during weekends.
Eventually, stress isa major contributor to disease, to mental health disorders, and to alcohol abuse. And, that, in turn, contributes to physical and mental health problems, increased risk of addiction, and increased feelings of stress, hangover, and low mood the day after drinking.
Eventually, drinking to deal with stress makes things worse. It puts you at risk of addiction. It puts you at risk of feeling worse the next day. And, it builds up a mindset of using something that is inherently unhealthy as a coping mechanism. If that sounds like you or a loved one, it’s important to take steps to change those patterns. Mental health treatment can help you to deal with stress. If you’ve been dealing with stress for some time, you might also want to look for alcohol addiction treatment, which can help you to step away from alcohol as a coping mechanism and to build new and better coping mechanisms in its place.
If you have any questions about alcohol abuse or about our drug and alcohol rehab programs, contact us today to speak in complete confidence with one of our experienced and caring addiction treatment team.