The stresses of the last 20 months have seen many of us reach for another alcoholic drink as a means of ‘coping’, forgetting our worries and numbing any concerns. Official data from Public Health England suggests that almost one million people across England have become addicted to alcohol as a result of the pandemic. The loneliness caused by being at home for extended periods of time, the worry about catching the virus, not seeing friends and family, or being out of work, are all understandable stress-inducing factors.
The fact is there is some truth to the idea that alcohol can reduce stress. It is a sedative and a depressant that affects the central nervous system. At first, drinking can reduce fears and help take your mind off any troubles. It can help you feel generally relaxed. In fact, alcohol’s effects can be similar to those of anti-anxiety medications. However, these benefits are short term and alcohol should be avoided as a stress reliever.
The organiser of this week’s International Stress Awareness Week (1–5 November 2021), the International Stress Management Association (ISMA), promotes best practice in the field of stress management and advocates avoiding alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Alcoholic effects on the brain
When we drink alcohol, it disrupts the balance of chemicals and processes in our brain. It is these chemical changes that account for the initial relaxed feeling with a first drink. But these effects wear off fast and the pleasant feelings fade.
According to the charity Drinkaware, if individuals rely on alcohol to mask stress and anxiety issues, they may become dependent on it to relax, which may lead to alcohol addiction. The knock-on effect of this is that the more alcohol drunk, the greater an individual’s tolerance for alcohol will be. Over time, more and more alcohol will need to be drunk to achieve the same feeling. Such a pattern of alcohol abuse can affect mental health.
Using alcohol as a coping mechanism against stress should therefore be avoided as it can easily spiral into a dependency. Long-term alcohol abuse can impair the brain’s frontal lobe, affect neurotransmitters and create a dopamine imbalance, which may result in anxiety, depression and memory loss.
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