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Alcohol and mental health

The relationship between alcohol and mental health is one that is close but also complex.

Within this blog, we will examine the reasons why our consumption of alcohol and our mental health can become so interconnected. For people struggling with their drinking and their mental health, we have also outlined the support options that are available at Priory Group to help you start addressing and recovering from these co-occurring disorders.

How does alcohol influence your mental health?

The short-term effects of alcohol on mental health

Alcohol is a substance that is capable of impacting a person’s mood. Initially, after one or two drinks, when alcohol has affected the area of the brain associated with reward, it can cause a conscious feeling of pleasure and relaxation.

But continuing to drink, and doing so heavily, can have a negative effect:

  • It can cause a person’s mood to plummet
  • It can lead to repressed feelings and memories coming to the surface, resulting in overwhelming emotional distress
  • If can interfere with judgement and memory, leaving a person feeling embarrassed or anxious the following day
  • It can affect sleep quality and energy levels in the days after drinking, which can cause a person’s mood levels to continue fluctuating after their alcohol consumption

As alcohol can have such a significant impact on mood, someone with a mental health condition who drinks heavily may find that while alcohol initially lifts their mood or causes them to feel relaxed, it leaves them feeling worse both during and after consuming a lot. 

The long-term effects of alcohol on mental health

When someone drinks heavily on a regular basis, it can change how their brain functions.

Overtime, the alcohol depletes the brain chemicals linked to feelings of pleasure and wellbeing. At the same time, it promotes the release of stress-related chemicals. 

Therefore, people who regularly drink heavily often experience anxiety, tension and depression. As alcohol also reduces their ability to experience pleasure, they often feel that they have nothing other than alcohol to turn to for enjoyment.

As a result, long-term heavy drinking can worsen a person’s mental health.

How does your mental health influence your alcohol consumption?

Using alcohol to cover or mask a mental health condition

Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health is still common, and this stigma can have dangerous consequences. It may stop a person from accessing treatment in a timely manner, lead to them withdrawing from society and sadly result in a poorer quality of life overall. 

One way that a person may try to hide a mental health condition from others is through alcohol consumption. Sadly, some do believe that being seen as a ‘bit of a drinker’ or even ‘a heavy drinker’ is something that is more socially acceptable than having a mental health condition.

Using alcohol as a coping mechanism to manage emotional distress

People struggling with their mental health may start to self-medicate on alcohol.

They may drink in attempt to escape, alleviate or even dull thoughts and feelings. And, while they may initially feel better after drinking, as it can give the person a few hours of relief from the pain that they are experiencing, the reality is that their emotional distress will still be there and will still need to be addressed when they do stop drinking.

Drinking to deal with emotional distress can also lead to addiction issues, as the body and mind come to rely on alcohol in order to function.  

Alcohol and mental health: self-care tips

If you have been struggling with your alcohol consumption and/or your mental health, we have put together some practical tips so that you can start taking steps towards feeling better.

Managing your alcohol consumption

Start off by keeping a diary of your drinking habits. This can help you to recognise how much you actually drink and if you regularly drink above the recommended guidelines of 14 units a week. You will also be able to see if there are any patterns and any triggers that cause you to drink. If you aren’t physically dependent on alcohol, think about introducing the following:

  • A new evening and weekend routine – write out a detailed plan for the times when you are mostly likely to drink. Make sure it includes activities that will take up all your concentration
  • Keep a dry house – get rid of any alcohol in your house to reduce the temptation
  • Let people know you’re cutting back or quitting alcohol – telling people that you’re cutting back will help to stop them from suggesting drink-related activities and will also give them an opportunity to support you on your endeavour
  • Think about the benefits – when you stop drinking alcohol, there are numerous benefits. It frees up your time, improves your health, helps you to sleep better and saves you money
  • Address the reasons why you drink – if you have been drinking because of your job, relationship, stress or anxiety, low self-esteem or the past, take the time to think about what you can do to address this

It is important to note that if you are physically dependent on alcohol, it is crucial that you seek medical advice before taking any steps to change your drinking habits. Withdrawal from alcohol can be extremely dangerous and is something that should be medically-assisted. 

Looking after your mental health

Looking after your mental health is something you should do every day, not just when you are feeling low, stressed or anxious. Taking good care of your wellbeing can help with your thoughts, emotions and behaviour. It can make you more productive, energised and better equipped to cope with any difficulties that come your way. Some simple things that you can do to look after your mental health include:

  • Getting better sleep – if you need to improve the quality of your sleep, try going to bed and waking up at similar times every day. This will get your body into a routine, where it recognises when you should be asleep and awake. Also, avoid alcohol and caffeine in the six hours before bed, exercise outdoors once a day and make sure your bedroom is comfortable, cool and dark
  • Connecting with others – visiting your friends and family can boost your mood. If you feel able to, talk to them about how you’ve been feeling lately as this can also help.They will be able to provide you with advice and support. It will also help you to feel more supported and less alone in the world
  • Exercising outdoors – exercising can take your mind off any thoughts that have been affecting how you feel lately. It also triggers the release of ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals, improves the quality of your sleep and help to boosts your self-esteem. Although, avoid exercising a few hours before bed, as this can have an adverse effect on your sleep
  • Eating well – what we eat benefits both our mental and physical health. Enjoy a healthy, balanced diet and avoid skipping meals as this can cause your mood to dip
  • Reducing your alcohol intake – as mentioned, your alcohol consumption can have a direct impact on your mood and mental health. Use the tips above to help you address the relationship that you currently have with alcohol

Seeking alcohol and mental health treatment

If you or someone that you are close to has a co-occurring problem with alcohol and mental health, it is important to think about accessing professional help and support. Some people need this helping hand, and that is something that we are able to provide here at Priory Group.

At our hospitals and wellbeing centres, we are able to give people the treatment that they need to address their issues with alcohol and their mental health. Following an initial, no-obligation assessment with a member of our team, one of the following options may be suggested:

  • A residential treatment programme - residential treatment at one of our mental health and addiction facilities gives you the time, space and structure that you need to start recovering from your co-occurring conditions. This may include taking part in one of our Addiction Treatment Programmes, where you attend one-on-one and group therapy sessions, workshops and seminars so that you can start addressing your relationship with alcohol and improving your mental health
  • Day or half-day sessions - during a programme of day or half-day sessions, you will take part in a programme of one-to-one and group therapies, alongside wellness and mindfulness workshops. This is a particularly useful programme for those who do not need the 24-hour care and support that is provided through our residential treatment
  • Weekly therapy sessionsif appropriate, it may be recommended that you attend weekly therapy sessions at one of our wellbeing centres. During these sessions, you will be able to talk through your co-occurring conditions, addressing the triggers and causes, and working towards developing healthier coping strategies so that you can start feeling better

Blog reviewed by Dr Patrick Mbaya (MB ChB, MSc, MD, FRCPsych, Cert. Psychopharmacology), Lead Consultant for Addictions at Priory Hospital Altrincham

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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