Alcohol is often thought of as separate from other drugs. It’s a major part of our culture and makes its way into some of our most cherished traditions. In fact, as many as 86 percent of people in the United States have tried alcohol at least once during their lifetime. That’s more than any other drug. But alcohol is a psychoactive chemical like any other, and without treating it with the proper respect and moderation, it can cause some serious problems. It’s one of the most common recreational psychoactive substances next to caffeine and followed by nicotine.
People drink to be social, to unwind after a long day, and to participate in collegiate rites of passage. Some forms of alcohol use are less healthy than others, but it’s clear that once you cross the line of moderation, you risk developing a serious disease. Alcoholism is a form of addiction, which is classified as a severe alcohol use disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Alcoholism is on the severe end of the spectrum, but there are many stops on the road to a severe AUD that act as warning signs including abuse and chemical dependence.
It’s often said that one of the signs of a growing AUD is when a person stops using it for fun and starts using it out of a feeling of necessity. In many cases, people will use it to cure anxiety or depression. If you stop and think about it, this phenomenon is much more common than you think. How many times have you heard the phrase, “I need a drink,” from a character in a movie after a stressful scene or from a coworker after a rough day at the office? It may seem like a harmless colloquialism, but it may be indicative of a culture that uses alcohol like it’s medicine.
In psychology and in addiction treatment, this is called self-medication, and it can lead to some serious problems. But you might think back to times when you were down, and drinking seemed to help. It seems to clear up bad feelings and anxieties.
Well, let’s see what science has to say about it.
Understanding how alcohol can affect your emotions starts with understanding how it works in the human brain. When you drink something like a Tequila Sunrise, your body starts to process the beverage as soon as it hits your stomach. Your body will start to metabolize the orange juice by using the vitamin D, the sugar in the grenadine will be burned for fuel, but when it comes to tequila, your body will try to point it to the nearest exit. Your liver will filter it out of your system so that it doesn’t reach your bloodstream, but your liver can only handle so much at once. If you drink it quickly or have two or three in a row, alcohol is going to get past your defenses and into the bloodstream.
Then it takes your bloodstream northbound. Next stop: the brain. Once it slips past the blood-brain barrier, which is the brain’s chemical bouncer, it starts to affect your nervous system. Alcohol is in a class of drugs called central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which are GABAergic. That means that it works by affecting a chemical called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) and its receptor.
The GABA receptor is responsible for regulating excitability in the nervous system. Have you ever calmed down after a stressful event? Thank GABA. People who have anxiety disorders may have something psychologically or chemically wrong with the way their CNS regulates excitability, which is why other CNS depressants such as benzodiazepines are used to correct this kind of chemical imbalance.
Abusing alcohol can cause your brain to get used to this new chemical status quo and start to rely on it to maintain normal brain functions. This is when you develop tolerance and dependence. You become addicted when your brain’s reward center starts to take notice of the positive feelings that come with intoxication and starts to create compulsive cravings.
Self-medication is using psychoactive drugs that are not intended for you to use medicinally to treat medical or psychological ailments. You can also self-medicate with drugs that are used as medicines but have not been prescribed to you. People self-medicate for various reasons. It could be out of desperation for a remedy for disorders like depression or because of the stigma against seeking help for mental health problems. Sometimes you may not even realize that your self-medicating. Again, using alcohol to overcome bad feelings is a common cultural practice. Without thinking about it, you may be using alcohol to overcome these issues.
But alcohol can change your mood. Is that a good thing?
The short answer is technically yes, but that conclusion is not just short; it’s short-sighted. Depression can be caused by a variety of chemical imbalances and emotional problems. It’s difficult to pinpoint the true cause of depression without treatment, and even then, it can be hard to find. But the immediate effects of alcohol cause you to relax, release your inhibitions and forget about your anxieties. When you’re drinking, alcohol is increasing the effectiveness of the GABA in your brain, and it’s working to calm the chemicals that might make you feel anxious or stressed.
But alcohol is a depressant, and after a while, the good feelings it brings may start to wear off. You may have experienced this, even if you don’t have a depressive disorder. At some point during a night of drinking, you may start to feel more introspective, and you may start to remember some of the stressors or challenges you’re experiencing. Even if you don’t feel anxious, you may feel a tinge of hopelessness or despondency. This is because alcohol is suppressing excitability to the point of stopping you from feeling energized, optimistic, or empowered. People with depression may start off in a mental place where they tend toward apathy or sadness.”
Alcohol can turn those feelings into hopelessness.
That’s a good question. It’s often debated whether drugs cause mental health problems or if they simply make them worse. In some cases, depression leads to alcohol use disorders, and sometimes it seems like the reverse has happened. But it’s unclear if alcohol causes depression or if it triggers dormant undiagnosed depression. Either way, there seems to be a link between depressive disorders and alcohol use disorders. It also seems clear that alcohol can make depression much worse.
Alcohol can cause suicidal thoughts and actions in people who have a depressive disorder. Because alcohol can exaggerate depression, increase impulsiveness, and impairs judgment, suicidal thoughts are more likely to lead to suicidal actions when you’re intoxicated. The risk of worsening depression can grow if you develop an alcohol use disorder that starts to take over your life. Not only do you have the chemical factors to deal with, but alcoholism will also start to pile on issues by causing medical, social, legal, and financial problems.
But there is help available.
Boden, J. M., & Fergusson, D. M. (2011, May). Alcohol and depression. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21382111
Jacob, M., M.D. (2016, July 17). Alcohol & Depression. from https://psychcentral.com/lib/alcohol-and-depression/
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
Everyday Health. What is GABA? (October 17, 2015) By Lindsey Konkel, L., Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, R. MD from https://www.everydayhealth.com/gaba/guide/
healthline. Recognizing Forms of Self-Medication. Self-medicating with alcohol. (May 29, 2018) Faris, S., Watson, K., Legg, T. PhD, PsyD from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/forms-self-medication
American Psychiatric Association. What is Depression. Risk Factors for Depression. (January 2017) Parekh, R. MD MPH from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression