An alcoholic drink can initially make you feel better, help you to feel confident or relaxed in social settings, or take your mind off things. But drinking too much or too often can have the opposite effect on your mood and mental wellbeing.
On this page, you can find the following information:
- How does alcohol affect your brain?
- How does alcohol affect your mental health?
- What are other mood-boosting options instead of drinking alcohol?
- What support is available if I want help with my drinking or mental health?
- What support is available if I am affected by somebody else's drinking?
- Just as alcohol affects your body, it also affects your brain.
- Alcohol can initially act as a stimulant that induces feelings of euphoria and talkativeness, which is why it is so popular in social settings and as a pick me up when feeling stressed or low.
- However, alcohol is classified as a depressant. It disrupts the balance of chemicals in the brain, including serotonin – a chemical that helps to regulate your mood. This is why if you drink too much or too often you can end up feeling worse – it can increase your anxiety as the effects wear off.
- If you use alcohol as a way of relieving stress and anxiety, there is a risk that you may become dependent on it.
- There are lots of other strategies you can use to improve your mood.
How does alcohol affect your brain?
Alcohol can affect all parts of your body, including your brain and your brain chemistry. Your brain functions best when its chemicals and processes are in balance. Alcohol disrupts that balance. It changes the neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that help transmit signals from one nerve (or neuron) to another.
The relaxed feeling you get when you have your first drink is the sign that your brain chemistry is starting to change. The alcohol is depressing the part of the brain associated with inhibition, so you may feel more confident and less anxious.
Drinking also lowers the levels of serotonin in your brain – a chemical that helps to regulate your mood. When this happens, negative emotional responses, such as anger, aggression, anxiety or depression, can start to take over.
This not only happens each time you drink, but it can also have an accumulative effect so that if you drink regularly, your serotonin levels get lower and lower. Rather than improving your mood, alcohol can gradually make it worse.
How does alcohol affect your mental health?
The relationship between alcohol and mental health is complex. Alcohol can negatively affect your mood and mental wellbeing, your mental state can affect your use of alcohol and it may be that other factors affect both your drinking behaviour and your mental health and wellbeing.
Anxiety and depression are more common in heavy drinkers and heavy drinking is more common in those with anxiety and depression. Alcohol is a major risk factor for suicide ideation, suicide attempt and complete suicide. Over a third of people who have completed suicides in Aotearoa New Zealand had also consumed alcohol.
(Drink Aware UK, 2021)
Alcohol can make mental health conditions worse
If you experience mental health issues, you might find you use alcohol to temporarily feel better. Drinking alcohol is sometimes used to cope, or as a coping strategy. You can find yourself gradually drinking more alcohol, more often.
However, because of how it changes your brain chemistry, alcohol can contribute to and worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, mood disorders, suicidality, self-harm and psychosis. Also, because it removes inhibitions and increases recklessness, it can also put you more at risk of harming yourself, your whānau and others around you.
Alcohol can also interact with any medication you are taking for mental health or other conditions. It may be important not to drink alcohol at all, or to limit your intake if you are taking certain medicines. Check the instructions you were given when your medicines were prescribed, or ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are not sure.
If you have a mental health condition and you use alcohol as a coping strategy, talk about it with your healthcare provider.
Alcohol can contribute to developing a mental health condition and other problems
- Alcohol contributes to many diseases, conditions, injuries and events that may cause harm to yourself or to others. This can have mental health implications.
- If you drink heavily and regularly you’re likely to develop some symptoms of depression. This is because of the lowered production of serotonin in your brain.
- For some people, alcohol creates rather than reduces stress by stimulating your stress hormones.
If you don’t have a mental health condition but are concerned your drinking is slowly depressing your mood or increasing your stress, you can lower your risk of harm and take charge of your drinking by using these strategies. Read more about maximum alcohol recommendations.
(Drink Aware, UK, 2020)
What are other mood-boosting options instead of drinking alcohol?
Develop regular habits that reduce the build-up of stress and tension, such as:
- daily exercise, eg, walking, swimming, cycling, participating in sports
- yoga, tai chi or breathing exercises
- practising mindfulness
- spending time with friends, whānau, church communities
- taking part in community events
- joining a club
- spending time in the bush or at the beach
- having a hobby or leisure activity that helps you forget about stressful things in your life
- if you are worried about something, talking to a friend, family member or finding a counsellor.
What support is available if I want help with my drinking or mental health?
- If it is a crisis call 111, otherwise contact your healthcare provider.
- For help with your drinking, call the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797, visit alcoholdrughelp.org.nz or free txt 8681.
- For help with a mental health issue, phone or text 1737 for a trained mental health professional. 1737 is free to call or text from any landline or mobile phone, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
What support is available if I am affected by somebody else's drinking?
Help for families, whānau, friends Ministry of Health, NZ
Family Drug Support 0800 337 877 9am–10pm, 7 days a week
Alcohol Mental Wealth, NZ
Alcohol and depression Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK, 2015
Online NZ support to strengthen wellbeing Ignite NZ
Alcohol and other drug support services
- Effects on the body alcohol.org, NZ
- Alcohol misuse – how to help patients in primary care Best Practice Journal, NZ, May 2016
- Deaths and other harm from alcohol ActionPoint, NZ, 2017