Stress can be a normal and healthy response to change, a dangerous situation, or feeling under pressure. However, if it is intense or lasts for a long time it can be damaging to mental and physical health. Long-term stress can put pressure on your heart and increase your risk of developing mental health problems.
Many people use alcohol to manage their stress because it causes them to feel relaxed. However, while it may lead to short-term relief of symptoms it only masks symptoms of stress. In the long run, alcohol can make symptoms worse. You may know the feeling of paranoia and anxiety when you are experiencing a bad hangover.
In some cases, stress can even lead to problems with alcohol such as alcohol abuse, dependence, and addiction. These carry additional negative consequences for health. Once you have developed a dependence on and addiction to alcohol it can be very difficult to quit. You may therefore need professional help to stop.
We will discuss how alcohol is used as a coping mechanism for stress and what other techniques you can use. We will also discuss how to get help if you have already developed an alcohol dependency or addiction.
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What is Stress?
Stress is the response of the body to change and feelings of danger. Some amount of stress can be normal and even helpful. For example, a little bit of stress about a work presentation could help you to prepare well and motivate you to get it finished. It could also help you in a situation where you need to escape from danger. However, if stress levels are intense or last for a long time this can affect your mental and physical help.
Physicians talk about acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is generally in response to a particular event, it occurs soon after the event occurs and lasts for a few weeks. This event can be a bereavement, assault, or a natural disaster among other things.
Chronic stress is stress which continues for a long time, or which returns over and over. This occurs when you are under pressure for a long time, for example, if are constantly pressured by your boss at work or if you are living in poverty.
When you experience a stressful situation your hypothalamus communicates with your adrenal glands so that they release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones act on the autonomic nervous system which is responsible for regulating your heart rate, breathing, and digestion. Your heart rate will increase so that more blood can be pumped around your body.
Your blood vessels also dilate to allow blood to be channeled to your muscles and heart and constrict to prevent blood from going to organs that are not vital in a fight-0r-flight response such as your digestive system and sex organs. Additionally, your breathing increases so that there is more oxygen in your blood and your pupils dilate to let in more light and increase awareness.
Causes of Stress
There can be many causes of stress, the following are common causes:
- Having an overwhelming amount of responsibility e.g., work and home responsibilities
- Problems at home such as relationship breakdowns or domestic abuse
- Mental health problems such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Experiencing discrimination and abuse e.g., sexism, homophobia, racism, assault
- Events such as natural disasters, conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic
- Feeling out of control of a situation
- Experiencing big changes such as having your first child, moving country, or changing career
Symptoms of Stress
Recognizing signs of stress could help you to get help early on or help you to support a loved one through a stressful time. There are both psychological and physical symptoms of stress.
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Chest pain
- High blood pressure
- Stomach problems
- Weak immune system
- Weight gain or loss
What is Alcohol?
Alcohol is a psychoactive drug and a central nervous system depressant. It acts by increasing the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter. This causes inhibition of the nervous system leading to feelings of relaxation and to sedation.
Despite the potential negative consequences of alcohol use, it is widely a socially acceptable substance to consumers. Two-thirds of people surveyed in the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported drinking alcohol in the last year, twenty-five percent said they had binge drunk in the last month, and six percent reported consistent excessive alcohol consumption.
Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
If you feel like you or a loved one has a problem with alcohol consumption, it may be helpful to understand alcohol abuse and addiction to identify if you could benefit from professional help. Most treatment centers treat the underlying causes of problematic alcohol use so they will be able to attend to the stress and other factors which are causing your problematic drinking.
The more you abuse alcohol the more likely you are to develop alcohol dependency and addiction. There is also an increased risk of developing dependence and addiction if you are using it to cope. While some people can have a few drinks and even take part in excessive drinking and not develop an addiction, other people will be more prone to it.
Dependence is where your body and brain think that they need alcohol to feel normal. When you stop drinking you experience withdrawal symptoms which can be extremely unpleasant and even fatal.
Alcohol addiction is usually close behind and is a brain disease that causes you to compulsively drink despite negative consequences. It is all too often seen as a moral failing but should be treated with the same care and empathy as any other disease. Quitting alcohol can be extremely difficult once you have developed dependency and addiction.
Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol causes euphoria, relaxation, and drowsiness so it makes sense that people use it to relieve stress and anxiety. However, while alcohol may appear to help with the symptoms of anxiety, it actually makes it worse and with long-term use can have negative effects on other aspects of your health which could also cause more stress.
In terms of effects that relate to stress, alcohol can cause increased heart rate and blood pressure. This puts a strain on your heart and increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. Given that stress also causes increased heart rate and blood pressure together the risk is even higher. The effects of relaxation may mask your symptoms of stress, but your body will still deal with the negative consequences.
Alcohol-Free Ways of Managing Stress
When you are feeling stressed, perhaps after a long day at work, it is tempting to have a glass of wine or a beer to unwind. However, while it might help you feel relaxed in the moment, alcohol will often cause you to feel more anxious the next day and will exacerbate your symptoms in the long term.
There are other methods of stress release that studies have shown to work. These are healthier options that do not lead to long-term damage and can even improve other aspects of your life. We will discuss some ways that you can relax without alcohol.
Exercise and Spending Time in Nature
The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults spend at least two-and-a-half hours a week doing moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or one-and-a-quarter hours of high-intensity aerobic physical activity. This is consistent with research that showed that this amount of aerobic activity reduces stress. Doing this exercise split into short bursts can help as a stress break, for example, you may do fifteen-minute sessions.
Spending time outside has been shown to be particularly helpful. Even going for a walk in the city can help to relieve stress. However, if you can get out to green space such as in the countryside or park this is even better.
The evidence around relaxation techniques for easing stress is still not very solid due to small sample sizes and few well-researched studies but there are promising indications of it. Relaxation techniques include guided imagery (picturing things associated with relaxation and producing this feeling in your body), self-hypnosis (relaxation prompted by a phrase or nonverbal cue that you can do yourself), meditation, mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi, and breathing techniques.
Breathing techniques can be used when you are in a stressful situation. For example, if you are a work and you are feeling overwhelmed you can take a few deep breaths to calm yourself. This is particularly helpful if you have practiced this sort of technique consistently. A 2019 review showed that diaphragmatic breathing can reduce stress.
Research has also been done on the stress-relieving effects of yoga and Tai Chi. Studies suggest that sixty- to ninety-minute sessions two to three days per week can reduce stress and improve well-being. Even fifteen minutes of chair-based yoga can reduce acute stress. This was shown in research that looked at this sort of practice in the workplace.
Healthy Living and Journaling
Keeping a healthy lifestyle can also help with stress. As mentioned, exercise is one part of healthy living. Other ways are through sleeping enough and eating a healthy and balanced diet. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends that you get at least seven hours of good-quality sleep each night.
Creating new habits can also help. If you are drinking a lot with friends you may need to think about changing how you socialize. Some people may even need to think about spending less or no time with friends who drink a lot, particularly if they are dependent or have an addiction. Support networks are very important so try to spend time with people who help you to feel relaxed and happy.
Journalling, especially gratitude journalling, has been shown to help with stress. It can help you to recognize patterns of behavior and identify emotions. Gratitude journalling teaches you to focus on things that you are grateful for and not what you have not managed.
If you have very persistent stress or you are drinking to deal with it, you may wish to seek professional help such as therapy or a support group. A therapist can help you to work on the reasons for your stress as well as how you are coping with it through alcohol. Support groups can help if you have alcohol problems, helping you to feel like you are not going through recovery alone.
At Cornerstone, we focus on building a strong foundation for recovery. Our treatment programs are tailored to your needs. We work to understand your individual story, how your stress led to your drinking, and what other factors may be involved. Our specialists can help you with co-occurring issues if you drink alcohol to deal with stress. Our treatment options include:
- Medically supervised detox
- Inpatient rehabilitation
- Relapse prevention
- Individual and group therapy
- Educational seminars
- 12-step program support groups
You can find out more about our treatment options by visiting our website or calling us at 800-233-9999. We offer a free consultation and insurance verification service so that you do not need to think about the extra hurdle of money when you get in touch.