According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heavy drinking can lead to various medical conditions, such as arrhythmias, high blood pressure, liver disease, heart disease, pancreatitis, and certain cancers, including oral and breast cancer. But were you aware that in addition to these physical health consequences, heavy drinking can also have disastrous effects on your mental health?
The connection between drinking and mental health is complex. On the one hand, alcohol is utilized as a social lubricant as well as a means of relaxation and coping with daily stressors. In contrast, harmful alcohol consumption has been linked to mental health issues, addiction, and social isolation. This article investigates the connection between mental health, excessive drinking, and various mental health conditions associated with alcoholism.
How Does Alcohol Affect Your Mental Health?
As a depressant, alcohol slows down brain activity and affects how you think, feel, and behave. It affects the part of the brain that controls inhibition, making you feel relaxed, less anxious, and more confident after a couple of drinks. However, these effects can quickly wear off, and the serotonin levels in the brain, a chemical responsible for regulating mood, can reduce and lead to more negative mental states such as aggression, depression, or anxiety. Excessive drinking on a regular basis interferes with neurotransmitters in the brain that are essential for mental wellness. Due to its potential to make people lose their inhibitions and act impulsively, alcohol abuse is also associated with suicide, self-harm, and psychosis.
Long-term binge drinking and excessive drinking can significantly alter the chemistry and structure of the brain. It can induce brain atrophy and deficiency in the fibers (white matter) that transmit information between brain cells (gray matter). This can cause irreversible brain damage, leading to cognitive deficits such as memory loss, learning difficulties, dementia, and significantly impaired mental functioning. Chronic alcohol abuse can also cause anatomical alterations in the brain, leading to a physiological dependence on alcohol.
Alcohol-Related Mental Health Conditions
Various mental health issues, including mood disorders, psychosis, sleep disorders, trauma- and stress-related disorders, and alcohol use disorder (AUD), can result from prolonged excessive alcohol consumption.
Individuals with alcohol use disorder are usually diagnosed with another mental disorder, furthering the link between alcoholism and mental illness. The most common psychiatric disorders that co-occur with alcohol addiction include:
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
There remains a vicious cycle between heavy alcohol intake and mental health. According to a study published by the Mental Health Foundation, individuals who abuse alcohol are highly likely to develop mental disorders. And individuals with a preexisting mental disorder are highly likely to abuse alcohol. For example, drinking can increase the risk of developing depression, but depression can also lead to increased alcohol consumption, exacerbating both conditions.
Alcohol and Depressive Disorders
Depressive disorders are by far the most prevalent mental health disorders to co-occur with AUD. Due to its effects on the brain’s serotonin and dopamine levels, which are essential for regulating mood, AUD can lead to depression. The two most common co-occurring depressive disorders are major depressive disorder (MDD) and persistent depressive disorder (PDD). According to the National Library of Medicine, individuals with alcohol use disorder are 3.7 times more likely to have MDD and 2.8 times more likely to have PDD.
Major depressive disorder is a mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or pessimism that can interfere with an individual’s ability to function at work or home. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), symptoms of depression must be present for at least two weeks before a diagnosis can be made. Persistent depressive disorder is a milder, longer-lasting form of depression that can occasionally trigger episodes of major depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, for this condition to be diagnosed, an adult must experience depressive symptoms for at least two years.
Alcohol-induced depressive disorder, on the other hand, is a depression-like condition defined by a depressed mood or anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) that occurs only during and shortly after alcohol intoxication or withdrawal and resolves within three to four weeks of alcohol abstinence. There is a bidirectional association between alcohol use disorder and depressive disorders; symptoms of one disorder can cause or exacerbate the other.
For example, there is a higher prevalence of AUD among depressed individuals than among the general population, and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can exacerbate depressive symptoms, leading to more heavy drinking. The treatment for co-occurring depressive disorders involves counseling, pharmacological and holistic interventions, lifestyle changes, and support groups.
Alcohol and Anxiety Disorders
Alcohol-induced anxiety disorder is a condition in which alcohol consumption causes or aggravates anxiety symptoms. Alcohol alters the brain’s serotonin and other neurotransmitter levels, exacerbating anxiety during alcohol withdrawal. Anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent, overwhelming worry or fear, preventing an individual from performing everyday activities. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental disorder, affecting approximately 30% of adults.
Alcohol use can also exacerbate preexisting anxiety symptoms. It is common for people with a social anxiety disorder to consume alcohol to manage social interactions, which can lead to a cycle of heavy alcohol consumption and worsened symptoms of both diseases.
Abstaining from alcohol and seeking professional assistance for symptom management are recommended treatments for alcohol-induced anxiety. Psychotherapy, pharmacological and holistic interventions, lifestyle changes, and support groups are typically employed concurrently to treat co-occurring anxiety disorders.
Alcohol and Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder and alcohol use disorder often co-occur due to the sedative effects of alcohol, which can exacerbate bipolar disorder symptoms. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes unusual changes in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the inability to carry out everyday activities. These moods range from periods of emotional highs (manic episodes) to periods of extreme lows (depressive episodes).
Evidence suggests that individuals with bipolar disorder, particularly those experiencing mania, may turn to alcohol as a form of self-medication to relieve symptoms. However, alcohol can further exacerbate the mood swings associated with bipolar disorder. Treatment for co-occurring alcohol use disorder and bipolar disorder is complex and requires a combination of pharmacological and holistic interventions and psychosocial therapies.
Alcohol Use and Suicide
Suicide is a growing public health concern, and alcohol consumption has been consistently linked to the onset of suicidal behaviors. Alcohol abuse can lead to suicidal ideation through disinhibition, impulsivity, and impaired judgment, but it may also be used to reduce distress during the act of suicide. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), roughly 22% of suicide deaths involved intoxication, while about 30% to 40% of suicide attempts involved acute alcohol intoxication.
Call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor if you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts. In case of life-threatening situations, make sure to call 911 immediately.
Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
Depending on how often and for how long someone drinks, alcohol can have a wide range of effects on the brain. In order to prevent the deterioration or development of psychiatric disorders, it’s important to practice abstinence. However, due to the complexity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, it’s important to seek professional assistance before you quit drinking.
Treatment for alcohol dependence often begins with a medical-assisted detoxification program to rid the body of alcohol safely and comfortably. Medical detox sets the foundation for the rest of the addiction treatment and helps avoid complications during withdrawal symptoms. Individuals with a dual diagnosis will require a unique approach to treating both alcohol abuse and mental disorders simultaneously. Treatment for dual diagnosis typically includes behavioral therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy or trauma therapy, as well as pharmacological and holistic interventions. Because of the intricacy of the condition, dual diagnosis treatment is often best administered in an inpatient setting.
If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol-related problems and wish to break free, Futures Recovery Healthcare is here to help. We boast a dynamic team of experts and caregivers committed to honoring your needs and working with you to create a treatment plan that incorporates your treatment needs and goals. We aim to help you battle alcohol use disorder to improve your overall well-being and quality of life.