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Help — I think I’m drinking too much
Research shows that more adults are using alcohol to deal with stress and anxiety. Here’s how to tell if your drinking has gotten out of control and where to find help.
Did you turn to alcohol to help cope during the pandemic? Lots of people did. 12% of U.S. adults increased their alcohol or substance use, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And a study in Hepatology shows that binge drinking increased by 21% during the pandemic.
“I have definitely noticed an uptick in alcohol use among clients since the pandemic,” says clinical addictions specialist Corey Connelly. She's in private practice in Charlotte, North Carolina.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying an occasional cocktail with friends or relaxing with a glass of wine after a stressful day. But drinking is not an effective way to handle your worries, stress or loneliness. In fact, relying on alcohol to curb your anxiety often backfires. It can have unhealthy — and often dangerous — implications for physical and mental health.
How alcohol affects stress and anxiety
Anxiety and alcohol addiction commonly occur together, according to American Addiction Centers. Many people with anxiety problems use alcohol to cope, and some wind up developing alcohol use disorder (also known as alcoholism).
Unfortunately, turning to alcohol to lift your spirits can have the opposite effect. “Because alcohol is a depressant, it can actually worsen mental health issues and symptoms,” says Clare Waismann. She is an addiction specialist and founder of the Waismann Method for opioid treatment. It can become an ongoing cycle where you drink to lower anxiety, which only makes you more anxious, leading you to drink more, and so on.
And remember, any issues that triggered your stress and anxiety will still be there once the effects of the alcohol wear off.
To top it off, chronic alcohol use damages the amygdala. This is the area of the brain that regulates emotions and keeps negative emotions under control. This can make it even harder for you to handle stressful situations.
“Alcohol dependence can rapidly become dangerous and harmful to every aspect of one’s life,” says David Livingston. He is a clinical psychotherapist at the Domus Retreat, an opioid and alcohol recovery center in Orange County, California.
(You can learn healthy strategies for getting stress under control here.)
How too much alcohol affects your health
Excessive drinking is linked with chronic diseases and health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Weakened immune system
- Learning and memory problems
It’s also often associated with social problems, such as family- and job-related difficulties. The CDC defines “excessive drinking” as consuming:
- For women, 4 or more drinks in a sitting or 8 or more drinks per week
- For men, 5 or more drinks in a sitting or 15 or more drinks per week
Drinking excessively doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dependent on alcohol, but it can be one of many signs to watch for. (More on common signs next.)
How to tell if you have a problem with alcohol
There are many possible signs that you or someone you love has an alcohol problem, and symptoms vary from one person to the next.
Still, there are common signs to look for. According to Waismann, these include:
- Frequently drinking more or for longer than intended
- Wanting to cut down or stop drinking but being unable to
- Feeling guilty or ashamed about drinking
- Hiding alcohol use from others
- Showing drastic changes in mood or behavior
- Having problems at work, school or home due to drinking
- Using alcohol in risky situations, such as when driving
Seek help if you see one or more of these signs in yourself or in others.
What to do if you think you have a problem
It can be scary to discover that you have a problem with alcohol. Fortunately, there are many places you can turn to for help.
Primary care doctor. Talking to your internist is an important first step. Primary care physicians can be good sources for treatment referrals and medications, per the Mayo Clinic.
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Individual counseling or therapy. A mental health professional can help you identify and change the behaviors that lead to drinking. The provider may also be able to prescribe medications to help with anxiety and/or alcohol dependence, if appropriate. Find a therapist who is a licensed clinical addictions specialist, or one who has experience working with clients who struggle with substance abuse.
Mutual-support groups. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step programs provide support for people quitting or cutting back on alcohol. Connecting with people who are going through similar experiences can add a valuable layer of support. It is especially helpful when combined with other treatment options.
Crisis centers and hotlines. If you or someone you love needs immediate help, or you’re not sure where to find treatment, reach out to a crisis center right away. A notable one is the national 24/7 helpline at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Inpatient treatment and rehabilitation programs. Inpatient treatment (where you stay at a facility) may be appropriate for some people. These facilities are often more intensive and costly, so talk with your doctor about whether inpatient options are best for you. You’ll also want to check whether your insurance plan covers any portion of the cost.
How to help a loved one who is drinking too much
What if you suspect that someone you love has a drinking problem? The first step is to bring up this concern when the person is sober. “It’s always a difficult conversation to have with someone, and it’s best to be clear and direct about your concerns and how you might support them,” Connelly says. She recommends using “I” statements that start with “I’ve noticed” or “I’m concerned.”
“It is also crucial to connect your loved one with a therapist or treatment program, depending on the severity of their drinking,” Connelly adds.
Above all, remember that there are a variety of resources to help those struggling with alcohol. With the right support, you or your loved one can overcome alcohol issues.
For more on the role alcohol plays in our lives, check out our podcast episode “Sober Curious”. Just click to listen now.
Alcohol use statistics: Kaiser Family Foundation (2021). “The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance abuse”
Binge drinking statistics: Hepatology (2021). “Effect of increased alcohol consumption during COVID-19 pandemic on alcohol-associated liver disease: a modeling study”
Anxiety and alcohol: American Addiction Centers (2022). “Anxiety and alcohol: Does drinking cause anxiety and panic attacks?”
Alcohol and health: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). "Alcohol use and your health"
Treatment: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2021). "Treatment for alcohol problems: Finding and getting help"