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Why Alcohol Can Make Anxiety Worse

People often drink to relieve stress and anxiety, especially social anxiety. Ironically, drinking alcohol can actually make anxiety worse. The more you drink, the more likely you are to have an anxiety backlash. Here are some of the reasons.

Alcohol makes your blood sugar drop.

Alcohol provokes a powerful insulin response in your body, which causes your blood sugar to drop and stay low for a long time. In fact, studies estimate that more than 90 percent of people with alcohol use disorders have chronically low blood sugar. This is important because low blood sugar causes a number of symptoms, including anxiety, irritability, confusion, inability to focus, sweating, and shaking. If you are already prone to anxiety, low blood sugar is exactly what you don’t want.

Alcohol reduces the amount of serotonin in the brain.

Serotonin is the neurotransmitter responsible for, among other things, a feeling of wellbeing. While alcohol can cause euphoria in the short term, it also reduces the availability of tryptophan in the brain. The brain needs tryptophan to make serotonin. When it’s restricted over the course of several hours–depending on how much you drink–serotonin levels start to fall. This can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.

Hangover anxiety.

Alcohol may be a social lubricant, temporarily lowering your inhibitions and making you more open, but if you are already prone to social anxiety, you often pay for it the next day. You might waking up thinking, “I can’t believe I said that,” and worry about the fallout from your fun night. This effect is compounded by the drop in serotonin, dehydration, and possibly feeling terrible in general.

Regular heavy drinking changes your brain chemistry.

Alcohol relaxes you by enhancing the effect of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA and inhibiting the effect of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. However, if you drink a lot, your brain starts to compensate by making less GABA and more glutamate. This is what happens when you build up a tolerance. As a result, when you don’t drink, you are more likely to feel anxious and irritable. If this imbalance is severe enough, withdrawal can include elevated heart rate and blood pressure, shaking, and seizures.

Addiction makes you anxious.

If you drink enough to develop physical dependence and addiction, you become preoccupied with drinking. It becomes less about the pleasure of drinking and more about the fear of withdrawal. People often adhere to a strict schedule and protect their drinking time out of fear they won’t be able to drink. This makes you vulnerable to any sort of disruption and anxious about your next opportunity to drink.  

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