What Causes Social Anxiety After Drinking?

A drink to “unwind” after a stressful day. Another to “loosen up” at a party. Alcohol has long been used to relax and release anxiety.  But it turns out that drinking can actually trigger anxiety attacks  – and using alcohol to ease social anxiety can lead to abuse and addiction.

The Alcohol-Anxiety Connection

The relationship between alcohol and anxiety is complex.  Drinking alcohol is enjoyable because it affects the brain’s production of serotonin, a chemical that produces positive feelings.  Since alcohol is a depressant, it also slows the brain’s ability to process information and reduces reactivity to stress and other kinds of stimulation.

That connection helps to explain why people turn to alcohol when they’re under stress or feeling nervous in a social situation.   But that effect only lasts while a person is drinking.  In fact, many people feel more anxious after drinking than they did before.

Anxiety Can Spike After Drinking

Social Anxiety

Alcohol alters the brain’s production of serotonin, which can cause anxiety.

The dreaded hangover is a well-known after effect of drinking.  The headache, nausea and other symptoms of a hangover come from the body’s reaction to alcohol and its effort to clear the system of alcohol’s toxins.   One lesser-known hangover symptom can be a spike in anxiety or panic attacks, especially in people who suffer from anxiety disorders.  Anxiety symptoms that strike after drinking can include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shakiness
  • A “jittery” feeling
  • Feelings of dread and gloom
  • Heightened worry with no real cause

Though it’s not well understood, research suggests a few reasons why people might feel more anxious the day after a bout of drinking.

Disordered serotonin levels in the brain

Since alcohol does affect the brain’s production of serotonin, those levels may not rebound properly while the body is clearing alcohol from the system. Lower serotonin levels can lead to higher anxiety.

Dropping glucose levels

Alcohol can also cause mild hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, which can trigger symptoms such as shakiness, lightheadedness and nausea.

Hyper-reactivity in the central nervous system

As the body works to rid itself of alcohol, the central nervous system goes into “overdrive” to rebalance from alcohol’s sedative effects.  This can cause sensitivities to light and sound, along with shaking and trembling

Dehydration

Alcohol puts the body into a state of dehydration, which can cause symptoms including dizziness and rapid heartbeat.

Some research suggests that people who use alcohol heavily may already have higher anxiety levels than those who don’t.   People who experience social anxiety, or discomfort in social situations such as parties, may feel better when drinking, so they become dependent on alcohol to get themselves through social events.

How Do I Know I’ve Become a Problem Drinker?

Alcohol and Anxiety Medications Don’t Mix

Because anxiety is a highly common mental health condition, many people take medications from a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, such as the widely prescribed Xanax and Ativan.  Like alcohol, these medications depress the central nervous system.

Taken together, alcohol and benzodiazepines can have a highly sedative effect that leads to unconsciousness or death. Or the combination can make anxiety worse, along with mood swings and other symptoms such as memory loss.  For that reason, people who take benzodiazepines are routinely advised not to drink while on the medication – although many do, to intensify its effects.

Alcohol Abuse and Anxiety: New Connections

Some research suggests that people who drink heavily may already be predisposed to developing anxiety disorders, so that drinking becomes a way of coping with anxiety.  Those in the mid or later stages of alcoholism seem to have more difficulty coping with traumatic events in their lives than those who don’t drink.  And for those in late stages of alcoholism who develop alcohol-induced dementia, changes in the brain caused by long term drinking can trigger anxiety and depression along with other symptoms including memory loss and problems with coordination.

The relationship between alcohol and anxiety is a complicated one.  Because of its effect on the brain’s delicate chemistry, alcohol can both lower anxiety and raise it – and abusing alcohol can have effects that last a lifetime.

Are you worried about using alcohol to handle your anxiety?  We have the answers you’re looking for.  Call us at 800-839-1686 for the help you need right now.

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