How Alcohol Affects Mental Health

how alcohol affects mental health

America has an alcohol problem, and it’s not hard to see why. Alcohol industry spending on advertisements has grown almost 400% since 1971, making it nearly impossible to go a day without seeing some glamorized version of drinking. As a result, about 55% of people report having had a drink in the past month, and about 6% report engaging in heavy alcohol use. Overall, more than 14 million adults struggle with alcoholism.

Alcohol use causes many changes in body and mind, both over the short and long terms. One of the most devastating effects of addiction is its erosion of a person’s mental health. Understanding the complex relationship is key to making better choices and combating alcoholism.   

The Effects of Alcohol on Mental Health and Well-Being

The mental effects of alcohol can take hold before someone’s drinking becomes a diagnosable problem. One night of binge drinking can produce marked changes in mental well-being for several days afterward, and the changes become more permanent as the person begins to consume alcohol more frequently. The following dimensions of mental well-being showcase how powerfully alcohol can impact mental health.

1. Mood

A significant portion of people with alcoholism start as “problem drinkers.” Problem drinking refers to the use of alcohol in response to specific negative events, such as a job loss, or to reduce the intensity of unpleasant emotions. In essence, people turn to alcohol to make them feel better. However, alcohol consumption is never a solution to any problem and ends up worsening mood overall. 

Initially, alcohol lowers inhibition and creates temporary feelings of happiness upon consumption. However, its toxic effects require the body to work harder to eliminate the alcohol, leading to disrupted sleep and lower energy levels. 

Drinking creates a temporary surge in the chemical serotonin, which makes people feel happier. Once that surge is over, people experience a “crash” that leaves them feeling anxious and unhappy. At this point, someone may choose to begin drinking again to alleviate these feelings, leading to a vicious cycle of continuous drinking. Excess alcohol consumption over the long term results in the brain producing less serotonin on its own, leading to significant mood dysregulation.  

2. Motivation

Alcohol is one of the killers of internal motivation. Once a person realizes they can have a few drinks and temporarily “turn off” their negative emotions, avoidance of those emotions becomes a central goal in life. Why spend time and effort working through problems or pursuing goals when you can purchase an artificial way to ignore them?

developing an addiction and losing motivation

A hallmark of alcoholism is a loss of interest in nearly anything but finding the next drink. People developing an addiction slowly begin withdrawing from family and friends, and losing performance at work or school. Alcohol becomes the only thing that matters, at the expense of long-term goals and the motivation to achieve them. 

3. Self-Esteem

People who struggle with low self-esteem may struggle with their self-worth. They tend to believe their opinions and thoughts don’t hold as much value as those of other people, and that they will not achieve the same levels of success as others. Low self-esteem may be a problem in and of itself, or it could be the result of a mental illness. 

Those with low self-esteem are more susceptible to relying on alcohol to dull the pangs of anxiety and stop them from obsessively thinking about their perceived inadequacies. This form of self-medication can briefly make a person feel more confident, but after the feelings of warmth and well-being subside, they only feel more anxious and more ashamed than before. The psychological effects of alcohol are never positive for very long. 

Alcohol’s Relationship to Mental Illness

It is common for alcoholism to occur alongside a psychiatric disorder — an issue known as “co-morbidity.” When two or more mental health disorders are present in the same person, the conditions interact negatively. Co-morbidity hastens the development of both conditions, and makes both symptom sets worse. Mental health disorders make people drink more, but it’s also true that drinking too much can trigger or worsen mental illness. The most extensive study on the subject in recent history reveals that people struggling with alcoholism are 3.6 times more likely to develop a mood disorder than those who are not addicted. They are also 2.6 times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. The same study found that:

  • 46% of people with alcoholism also had a co-morbid case of general anxiety.
  • 67% of these individuals struggled with anxiety before developing a dependency on alcohol.
  • More than half of the participants with co-morbid conditions had a history involving suicide attempts.

When people don’t get help for both conditions through appropriate treatment, they continue down the path of self-medication that only makes their situation worse. The relationship between alcohol and various mental illnesses creates a downward spiral that creates worse mental health symptoms, causing the person to drink more to try and mask them. Drinking mutes emotions, but it can’t make them disappear. Continued drinking worsens feelings of anger, hopelessness and depression, while also increasing impulsivity. 

While it’s common for people to drink more as a result of their mental illness, sometimes the drinking comes first and the mental health problems follow. Although drinking doesn’t necessarily cause mental health disorders, it can trigger latent conditions. For example, alcohol may stimulate depressive cycles associated with bipolar disorder. 

Mental Health Conditions Commonly Associated With Alcohol Use

Although alcohol use can negatively impact any mental health conditions, these are the most common mental illnesses that co-occur with addiction.

mental health conditions associated with alcohol use

Depression

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States. About 7% of all adults have had at least one episode of major depression in the past year, and a fair number of them turn to alcohol to self-medicate. The symptoms of depression include: 

  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Trouble concentrating and making decisions
  • Feeling guilty, worthless and helpless
  • Losing interest in formerly enjoyable activities
  • Persistent sadness and feelings of emptiness

Alcohol can temporarily make people feel less affected by their depression. They may feel like it improves their self-esteem or reduces feelings of emptiness. However, alcohol only serves to make depression worse in the long run, through a combination of changes at the brain level and consequences in major life areas like relationships and employment. 

Anxiety

Anxiety is even more common than depression, with about 18% of the adult population experiencing it each year. Because it lowers inhibitions, alcohol can initially make anxious people feel more confident or less worried. You have likely heard it called “liquid courage.” Many people with social anxiety believe drinking more in social settings will help them “loosen up,” but they probably don’t realize that once the alcohol wears off, the anxiety returns worse than before. 

Alcohol acts on GABA receptors in the brain, a trait it shares with specific anti-anxiety medications in the benzodiazepine class. Doctors only prescribe these medications for short-term or as-needed use, because their interference with the GABA receptors is so powerful it can cause addiction quickly. Alcohol can make an anxious person feel calmer and more relaxed while drinking, but this leads to worse anxiety symptoms once the drinking stops. People with anxiety who stop drinking altogether often experience panic as a withdrawal symptom due to how alcohol alters their brain chemistry over time.

When using alcohol to self-medicate anxiety, people essentially stop exercising the ability to work through anxiety on their own. People who struggle with a substance dependency experience higher levels of anxiety than people without addiction when faced with stress.   

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder affects about 4.4% of adults in their lifetime. Formerly known as manic-depressive disorder, bipolar causes extreme mood swings and shifts in energy and activity levels that impair the ability to effectively complete daily tasks. It’s no surprise that alcoholic mood swings, in addition to those produced by bipolar disorder, only throw people deeper into chaos. 

Many people with bipolar disorder don’t realize they have it, and may seek to self-medicate their depressive states with alcohol. As it does with anxiety, alcohol ends up exacerbating the negative symptoms of mania, or highly energetic moods. As impulsive behavior is already one characteristic of mania, adding alcohol and mood swings to the mix can result in dangerous behavior due to further degradation of inhibition. 

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a severe mental health disorder with a variety of symptoms that affect a person’s ability to function adequately in day-to-day life. It affects emotional regulation, self-perception and perception of the external environment. Delusions, hallucinations, movement disorders and dysfunctional thinking are all characteristics of schizophrenia that the psychological effects of alcohol use can worsen.  

Alcohol can exacerbate schizophrenic symptoms and increase the number of episodes a person experiences. It also causes a further decline in already impaired decision-making and thought processes. Additionally, a person who is seeking treatment for schizophrenia is likely to get a prescription for medication that leads to adverse reactions when mixed with alcohol. 

Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction

It’s clear alcohol misuse has far-reaching effects on mental health. What types of treatment are there to address this issue? At 7 Summit Pathways, we offer the following treatment programs.

Detoxification

The first step in treatment is to rid the body of alcohol. Doing so without medical support can be life-threatening at worst and extremely uncomfortable at best. Detoxification reduces the physical and emotional impact of ending alcohol use, allowing you to avoid the worst symptoms of withdrawal. 

Engaging in detoxification treatment is the safest way to withdraw from alcohol use, and sets the foundation for the rest of your treatment. This initial phase of care includes individualized treatment to ensure you get clean with the minimum level of discomfort. 

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Once detoxification is complete, our mental health professionals will evaluate you to determine whether you need treatment for co-morbidity. Our program addresses the unique needs of those who have a mental health disorder in combination with addiction. Many people don’t realize they have a mental illness, so our professionals perform evaluations to determine whether there are underlying conditions to bring to light. 

During your treatment, your trained counselors will continue to reevaluate your treatment plan to ensure it aligns with your needs and addresses your mental illness effectively. 

Partial Hospitalization Program

about our partial hospitalization program

Our Day-Night/Partial Hospitalization Program, or PHP, offers patients a high level of care with individualized treatment for each person. In this program, patients stay in off-site housing and take transportation to and from the facility every day. Patients receive 25 hours of clinical care each week, made up of different types of therapy and a variety of other therapeutic activities.

Treatment takes place three to five days per week, and evening programs are available for those who must schedule around work or school. Partial hospitalization offers a highly structured environment for patients to focus on improving their mental and physical health.

Intensive Outpatient Program

Intensive Outpatient Programs offer many of the same treatment techniques as PHP, but slightly scaled back. In most cases, patients participate in classes multiple times each week, with classes typically lasting three hours. Our Intensive Outpatient Program typically takes place over four to six weeks, with meeting times designed to offer enough flexibility for those who have work, school and family schedules to accommodate. The Intensive Outpatient Program supports patients with the following tools in addition to individual therapy.  

  • Family sessions: Addiction does not occur in a vacuum. It affects the individual’s entire family. Family counseling helps loved ones learn how to create healthier relationships and support each other.
  • Group sessions: Addiction can be highly isolating. Group counseling encourages participants to build trust and compassion with others who share similar experiences. 
  • Relapse prevention:  Preventing relapse is the ultimate goal of treatment. We provide patients with the tools necessary to curb cravings and use healthy coping skills to stop relapse from happening. 

The Holistic Difference at 7 Summit Pathways

7 Summit Pathways is proud to provide care that addresses the whole individual. Our treatments all address one or more of the Seven Dimensions of Wellness, which are:

  1. Social Wellness
  2. Emotional Wellness
  3. Spiritual Wellness
  4. Environmental Wellness
  5. Occupational Wellness
  6. Intellectual Wellness
  7. Physical Wellness

We individualize care completely, and ensure you receive the attention you need by limiting each specialist to five patients at any time. You’ll quickly realize the benefits of a treatment plan tailored specifically to you and the different facets of your unique experience. 

Start Your Journey to the Summit Today

contact 7 Summit Pathways

Addiction is a disease that requires treatment to live a happy, healthy life based in the Seven Dimensions of Wellness. At 7 Summit Pathways, we honor your needs and work with you to create a program that incorporates your experiences and goals into a holistic treatment experience. To learn more about our programs and how you can take your first steps on the path to lifelong health and happiness, call 7 Summit Pathways at 813-630-4673, or contact us online

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