An alcoholic drink can lift your mood, so it’s common to have a drink or two to celebrate a success, enhance a social occasion, reward yourself after some hard physical work or relieve stress at the end of a tough day at the office. But drinking too much or too often can have the opposite effect on your mood and mental wellbeing.
- Just as alcohol affects your body, it also affects your brain.
- Alcohol can 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 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.
- If you use alcohol as your main way of relieving stress and anxiety, there is a risk that you may become dependent on it.
- There are lots of strategies you can use so your drinking stays at the level of improving your mood rather than lowering it.
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?
Alcohol can interact with your mental health in two ways: it can make existing conditions worse, and it can lead you to develop them. Anxiety and depression are more common in heavy drinkers and heavy drinking is more common in those with anxiety and depression.
Alcohol can make mental health conditions worse
If you are susceptible to mental health issues, you might find you use alcohol to temporarily feel better. If this is your main 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.
Alcohol can also interact with any medication you are taking for mental health conditions.
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
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.
Also, in 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 take charge of your drinking using low-risk drinking strategies. Read about low-risk drinking
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
- yoga, tai chi or breathing exercises
- practising mindfulness
- spending time in nature
- 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 problem drinking or mental health?
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.
- Effects on the body alcohol.org, NZ
- Alcohol and mental health Drink Aware, UK, 2016
- Alcohol misuse: How to help patients in primary care Best Practice Journal, NZ, May 2016