Alcohol and Anxiety Disorders – Anxiety is a normal human reaction that is related to the brain’s “fight or flight” response mechanism. For some, however, anxiety is not merely a temporary concern—it tends to be pervasive and may increase in intensity over time. As a result, symptoms may begin to interfere with a person’s functioning and everyday activities and responsibilities, such as academics, work, and relationships.
There are many different types of anxiety disorders, but generalized anxiety disorder is the most common among them. Other disorders include obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobia-related disorders.
Alcohol and other drugs are sometimes abused by those who suffer from anxiety disorders as a misguided means to self-medicate. One or two drinks may help the average person relieve stress and inhibitions, but chronic excessive drinking has not been shown to reduce anxiety and, in fact, may worsen it or, in some cases, be a direct cause of it.
What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), is a mental health condition characterized by chronic anxiety and excessive worry and stress, even in circumstances where there appears to be minimal provocation. People who are diagnosed with GAD have experienced undue anxiety or distress on a daily basis for at least six months. These worries can be associated with any number of issues, including health, work, social interactions, and normal life situations. This anxiety can then result in additional significant problems in many of these same areas of life.
GAD symptoms may include the following:
- Feeling restless or on edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Being agitated or irritable
- Feelings of tension
- Difficulty concentrating
- Uncontrollable anxious feelings
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Insomnia or sleep disturbances
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 20% of Americans with a mood or anxiety disorder also suffer from a substance use disorder.
Other Anxiety Disorders Associated with Addiction
Panic disorder can be a very debilitating condition and is hallmarked by sudden, repeated episodes of extreme dread and feelings of impending doom or being out of control. These feelings are often by physical, terror-fueled symptoms, such as accelerated heartbeat and palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, crying, sweating, crying, and trembling.
Panic attacks can be entirely spontaneous but are most often instigated by some particular fear of a thing or situation, such as a centipede or flying in an airplane during extreme turbulence.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by chronic, unwanted thoughts and obsessions and compulsive, repetitive behaviors. These behaviors include activities such as excessive hand-washing, cleaning, counting, and neatly organizing everything in one’s environment.
The strict performance of these routines is required in order to temporarily repress compulsive thoughts. People who live with OCD only get a short respite from these anxious feelings through the act of these rituals, and performing them can further worsen anxiety.
Common symptoms of OCD include the following:
- Germophobia, a fear of germs or contamination leading to excessive washing
- Undesired or forbidden thoughts and feelings involving religion, sex or self-harm
- Aggressive thoughts toward oneself or others
- Having things placed symmetrically or in a specific order, arranging things in a precise way
- Repeated checking on things, such as frequently reassuring oneself that the door is locked
- Compulsive counting
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a potentially devastating mental health condition that can onset after a person has experienced a psychologically catastrophic event in which physical and/or intense emotional harm occurred in some manner. Such events include physical and sexual assault, childhood abuse or neglect, natural disasters, and military combat.
Having feelings of anxiety and fear both during and after a traumatic event is natural and serves the purpose of protecting us from future harm. However, individuals with PTSD continue to experience these feelings during circumstances that are, in reality, not at all threatening.
Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
Not every person who encounters a traumatic event or events will experience PTSD, and not everyone who suffers from PTSD has been exposed to an event that threatens their physical well-being directly. For example, some people can develop PTSD after a severe illness or the death of a family member or other loved one.
Symptoms usually manifest within three months of a precipitating event, but sometimes stay dormant until years later. In any case, to be diagnosed as having PTSD, the following symptoms must continue for more than thirty days and be severe enough to adversely impact relationships, academics, or career. These include the following:
- One or more reexperiencing symptoms, such as flashbacks or nightmares
- One or more avoidance symptoms, such as avoiding places or events that remind the person of the experience
- Two or more reactivity or arousal symptoms, such as being easily startled or having explosive outbursts
- Two or more mood or cognition symptoms, such as having negative thoughts about oneself or having feelings of self-blame
Once people experience traumatic circumstances, they may also develop feelings of guilt and shame that can manifest in alcoholism or drug addiction. Alcohol dependency can worsen PTSD symptoms and induce very uncomfortable side effects.
A phobia is hallmarked by the intense fear of a specific object (e.g., needles), a living thing (e.g., spider), or situation (e.g., being in confined in a small space). Anxiety may be considered to be a natural reaction in many of these circumstances, but people who suffer from phobias experience terror and sometimes panic that is dramatically out of proportion to a situation’s actual potential for danger.
People with a phobia may present the following signs:
- Having an irrational or unrealistic worry about being exposed to the object or circumstance that terrifies them
- Making an effort to avoid the object or situation
- Experiencing sudden and intense anxiety/panic when encountering the object or situation
- Enduring contact with unavoidable objects or conditions while experiencing severe anxiety and fear
Other anxiety disorders include separation anxiety disorder (a fear of being apart from a person to whom one is emotionally attached) and social anxiety disorder. The latter, which is also sometimes referred to as social phobia, is hallmarked by an intense fear of social situations or situations in which the person has to perform or speak in front of others. Because alcohol lowers inhibition and is therefore known as a “social lubricant” it’s not uncommon for people with social anxiety to be heavy drinkers.
Anxiety Disorders and Substance Abuse Treatment
Substance use disorders (SUDs) are found much more often among people who suffer from anxiety disorders than the general population. Anxiety disorders, when left untreated, often lead people to experiment with drugs or alcohol as a means to self-medicate. Emotional symptoms caused by the use of these substances, such as depression, irritability, and general malaise, often exacerbate anxiety disorders and can perpetuate a never-ending cycle of substance abuse and mental health problems.
Alcoholism does not usually exist in a vacuum, and instead, tends to co-exist with another mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression. For this reason, a comorbid mental illness must be treated simultaneously with substance abuse, and not addressed as a separate entity.
Both anxiety and substance abuse are very treatable and should be addressed as soon as possible. Harmony Recovery Center offers comprehensive, evidence-based addiction treatment that includes behavioral therapy, counseling, group support, and aftercare planning for long-term sobriety.
Recovery from addiction and mental illness is a lifelong process, but it can begin now with our help! Contact us today to discover how we help people free themselves from the chains of addiction and begin to enjoy the healthy and satisfying lives they deserve!
Related: Am I an Alcoholic?