Self-Medicating With Alcohol Can Make Anxiety Worse

A topic was raised recently: “I have two friends who drink to relax vs. taking prescription medications. They feel it’s cheaper, easier and has no side effects.” It is common practice among people who face depression and anxiety to use alcohol to self-medicate without realizing the negative effects of alcohol and depression/anxiety. When emotions become unpleasant, some choose to mask the feelings, anticipating that they will become intolerable. A low threshold for discomfort is one factor that contributes to this decision. Tian Dayton, PhD, equates it to “the same sort of premise as having access to your own morphine drip. You administer your own dose whenever you begin to feel pain.” The reasons are varied:

  • It is more easily accessible and can be purchased in supermarkets.
  • It is legal for those over 21.
  • It doesn’t require a prescription.
  • It can satisfy a desire to “take the edge off and relax.”
  • Unlike prescription drugs, it is used as part of a social activity.

The paradigm is that most who drink socially stop after a few drinks, fearing a potential lack of control, while people who are predisposed to addiction will continue to indulge because, they say, it helps them feel in control. Paradoxically, as people build up tolerance, their alcohol consumption begins to override their sense of power over their own lives. In his book called Drug, Set, and Setting, Norman Zinberg explains, “Sometimes alcohol may be a relaxant (the martini after the hard day at the office) and sometimes it may act as a stimulant (the first drink at the party.)” A generally high-functioning professional informed his therapist that he truly believed he could engage in “controlled drinking” to counter the effects of high levels of stress on the job, until, as he reported, “It began controlling me.” It was then that he committed to treatment. He also attended 12-step meetings several times a week. During his time in outpatient rehab, he did have a relapse but was able to regain his sobriety. According to a study conducted by the departments of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, patients who use alcohol and other drugs to ameliorate anxiety find that it aggravates their symptoms.

The Downside of Attempting to Elevate Mood

  • Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. If one is already feeling depressed, it will exacerbate the symptoms.
  • It interferes with other medications.
  • Becoming acclimated so that more is needed to reach the desired effect.
  • Dependence, whether physiological or psychological, escalates.
  • Despite consequences, continued drinking is likely to occur.
  • When the alcohol wears off, anxiety may increase.
  • It can complicate pre-existing medical conditions or create new ones.
  • It may mask symptoms of mental health conditions that would otherwise be treated.
  • It inhibits the use of healthy coping skills.
  • It is not monitored as prescription medications are.

While the Rolling Stones’ song “Mother’s Little Helper” speaks of other substances that allow the addicted individual to function on a daily basis, the principle is the same. “They just don’t appreciate that you get tired They’re so hard to satisfy, you can tranquilize your mind So go running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper And four help you through the night, help to minimize your plight Doctor please, some more of these Outside the door, she took four more What a drag it is getting old Life’s just much too hard today, I hear ev’ry mother say.” Gabrielle Glaser, author of Her Best Kept Secret, has expressed that alcohol abuse among women today often begins with mothers who pour a glass of wine after work to delineate time between the two worlds of home and the workplace responsibilities. Glaser says, “Then they kind of keep pouring. It doesn’t look like binge drinking — it’s not like they are slapping down shots at the bar, but it kind of borders on that.” Men do the same as they may have a few drinks before dinner and then sit in front of the television downing a couple more, essentially zoning out.

Ways to Face Life on Life’s Terms Without Self-Medicating

  • Ask yourself what role alcohol plays in your life and the purpose it serves.
  • Question what your life would be like without it.
  • Imagine never drinking again. What emotions arise?
  • How would you deal with those feelings?
  • Who are your supports to help you get through whatever arises?
  • Are you willing to reach out to them and allow them to reach in?
  • Find other physical and psychological ways to take that aforementioned edge off.
  • Learn meditation to ease yourself into a state of relaxation.
  • Engage in therapy.
  • Attend self-help meetings.
  • Consult with individuals you know with extended sober time who have been through the ups and downs of addiction and can speak knowledgably on the topic.
  • If you feel the urge to use, occupy your mind until it passes.

A mindfulness-based concept called “urge surfing” addresses that dynamic. It was created by Gordon Alan Marlatt PhD, who was a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and director at its addictive behaviors research center. Rather than suggesting that people simply resist the desire to use, which often ends up backfiring, Marlatt encouraged the practice of observing one’s feelings, breathing consciously, being aware of bodily sensations and allowing the thoughts to flow through, like twigs on a stream, as well as the reminder that “this too shall pass.” When used with a desire toward well-being, these techniques and suggestions are simply good medicine. By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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