Alcohol may feel as though it improves your mood, but the price for a temporary boost to your feelings is usually a longer period of low mood and an increased risk to your mental health over time.
- Alcohol negatively affects your mental wellbeing as well as your physical health. The more you drink, the greater the effect alcohol has on your mental health.
- Even though people often drink to reduce stress or anxiety or to improve their mood, it can end up making you feel worse.
- This is because alcohol depresses your brain’s functioning and in some people, it creates rather than reduces stress through stimulating your stress hormones.
- There is also a risk that you will become dependent on alcohol if you use it as your main way of relieving stress and anxiety without addressing the underlying causes.
- If you already have mental health issues, alcohol can make these worse. It can increase your symptoms and because it removes inhibitions and increases recklessness, it can also put you more at risk of harming yourself.
How does alcohol affect your mental health?
Alcohol changes your brain chemistry. Your brain functions well 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 feel more confident and less anxious. The more you drink, the more the alcohol depresses parts of your brain functioning.
As your brain chemistry changes, negative emotional responses can start to take over, such as anger, aggression, anxiety or depression. This is because regular drinking lowers the levels of serotonin in your brain – a chemical that helps to regulate your mood.
This not only happens each time you drink, but over time the effect is stronger. Therefore, rather than improving your mood, alcohol gradually makes it worse.
In people who drink heavily, alcohol commonly causes mood disorders, including depression, anxiety and psychosis.
How does alcohol dependency develop?
The brain changes that initially make you feel more confident and less anxious mean that alcohol is addictive and this can lead to dependency. This is where your body requires more alcohol to achieve the desired effect of altering your mood.
A sign of alcohol dependency is when using it interferes with your life. It can cause legal, work/study, relationship and social problems. You are also dependent if you keep using alcohol despite it causing you physical or mental problems and, if you don’t drink it, you start to get withdrawal symptoms.
If you recognise any of these signs, it's important that you cut down or stop drinking.
How does alcohol affect existing mental health issues?
If you already have a mental health condition, you are susceptible to alcohol abuse and dependency.
Alcohol can contribute to and worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, mood disorders, suicidality, self-harm and psychosis. It does this because of how it changes your brain chemistry, as described above.
Also, if you are taking any medication for mental illness, alcohol can adversely affect your medication and make side effects worse. The intoxicating effect of alcohol may also be stronger.
If you have an existing mental health condition, it's important to discuss your alcohol use with your healthcare provider.
How can I drink alcohol without developing a dependency?
For some people, not drinking alcohol is the best approach. However, if you do drink alcohol, there are several things you can do to help you stay within low-risk levels and reduce your chances of being no longer capable of controlling your drinking. These include:
- knowing what a standard drink is
- limiting your drinking to recommended safe levels
- having at least two alcohol-free days each week
- keeping track of how much you drink – daily and weekly
- setting limits for yourself and stick to them
- starting with non-alcoholic drinks and alternating these with alcoholic drinks
- drinking slowly
- trying drinks with a lower alcohol content
- eating before or while you are drinking
- seeking help if you feel your drinking is becoming a problem.
Find out more about alcohol and problem drinking.
What are better stress-relief options than drinking alcohol?
- Develop regular habits that reduce the build-up of stress and tension, such as:
- daily exercise, eg, walking
- 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 do drink alcohol, follow guidelines for frequency and daily limits, including having alcohol-free days each week to reduce the likelihood of developing a dependency
- If you are worried about something, talk to a friend, family member or find a counsellor
- If you have a mental health issue, get help with that rather than drinking to cope with it.
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 their https://alcoholdrughelp.org.nz/ website, 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