I was talking to a friend over coffee the other day who told me that she hadn’t experienced any “Sunday scaries”(you know, the existential dread about the work week ahead that keeps you from fully enjoying half of your weekend?) after she stopped drinking alcohol for two months. Consider my mind blown.
And okay, while there are some health benefits to drinking wine, on some level we all know that downing a few $5 happy hour margs every weekend isn’t necessarily the best thing for our bods. But could alcohol be affecting our anxiety in more than a oh god did I really text that hot guy from the gym 10 times last night way? (Definitely not speaking from personal experience.)
Short answer: Yes. “Alcohol is a central nervous depressant that interferes with sleep cycle, which means you might not get the restful sleep that you need,” says Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., professional clinical counselor and Talkspace provider. “Any impairments in quality of sleep can certainly impact mood and functioning.” Studies have also shown that disrupted sleep seriously increases anxiety.
Alcohol, especially too much of it, can have a big physiological effect on your bod, says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, stress management, diet and nutrition expert and author of “365 Ways to Boost Your Brain Power: Tips, Exercise, Advice. Once digested, alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, a “particularly potent toxin that can damage all tissues in the body, including the brain,” she says. This guy messes with your red blood cells’ ability to grab onto oxygen and deliver it effectively throughout your body—which can lead to some hallmark hangover symptoms like brain fog and headaches.
“Anytime you drink in excess, your body has to adjust to return to its pre-alcohol baseline. One of the side effects of alcohol withdrawal can be feelings of anxiety.” —Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D.
And hangovers themselves are essentially a form of alcohol withdrawal, says O’Neill. “Anytime you drink in excess, your body has to adjust to return to its pre-alcohol baseline. One of the side effects of alcohol withdrawal can be feelings of anxiety.”
But wait, there’s more! Drinking also affects your brain chemistry, which—you guessed it—can make your anxiety worse. “When you drink alcohol it disrupts the balance of chemicals and processes in your brain,” says Duy Nguyen, MD, board certified psychiatrist at Beachway Therapy Center in Florida.
Alcohol messes with your GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors. GABA is one of the major neurotransmitters in your brain, and it helps regulate anxiety. Alcohol binds to the GABA receptors in your brain, which is part of the reason why drinking can help you relax. But it also effs with your serotonin production (the “feel-good” brain chemical) because it depletes your body’s magnesium stores, Dean says. So when the alcohol wears off, you’re left likely feeling worse than you did when you started—both mentally and physically.
Plus, if you’re drinking for an emotionally-driven reason (maybe because of a bad breakup or something garbage that happened at work), O’Neill says that it could impact your natural ability to self-regulate difficult emotions. Translation: “When the alcohol wears off, you might find yourself dealing with an influx of emotions,” she says. So, that’s fun.
It should be noted that none of this is saying that if you drink, you automatically will become an anxious person. But if you are prone to anxiety and also drink a lot, you might consider cutting back your consumption—or cutting it out entirely—to see if it helps improve your mood. Pro tip: 11 minutes of meditation a day has been shown to help curb alcohol cravings and it can help reduce your anxiety. Just think—you may never relate to another Sunday scaries meme again.
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