After I quit drinking, I embarked on a long journey to heal my physical and mental health. As a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, I understand how alcohol affects our bodies and minds. As a nurse, I wanted to understand the deeper physiological aspects of why alcohol seems to make us so sick in all facets of our life. It’s one thing to realize that alcohol is toxic, but it’s another to understand the exact mechanisms for how this toxin destroys our ability to function and heal.
One of the most profound and problematic effects of alcohol use is how it affects mental health. I’ve written extensively about the biological reasons why alcohol messes with our nervous system and brain. Alcohol causes significant changes in our nervous system immediately after consuming even one drink. These changes can erode our neurotransmitters and cause nerve damage over time. This risk is exceptionally high for people who drink heavily for an extended period of time.
However, one aspect of mental health that we rarely consider is the impact of trauma on our nervous systems. In a sense, emotional trauma can cause similar negative changes in our brain and nervous system as alcohol use. One study says that trauma can be likened to a traumatic brain injury. Trauma can rewire our brains such that our day-to-day functioning becomes very problematic. This, in itself, can cause enough damage to our brains to create a mental health issue.
Unfortunately, many people turn to substances like alcohol to cope with the aftermath of trauma. Yes, alcohol may initially soothe our emotions, but this soothing is temporary and not sustainable. Those who abuse alcohol may think that it helps maintain coping, but actually, they are only drinking to quiet the withdrawal symptoms.
Over time, heavy alcohol use will worsen mental illness, and in some cases, it can cause a mental health issue where there wasn’t one before. I recently had a conversation with Dr. Mark Rego, a psychiatrist, and author of the book Frontal Fatigue. Throughout his practice, Dr. Rego treated many people with mental health issues who didn’t seem to improve despite many interventions. He said he’d eventually find out that the person had been drinking in excess but hadn’t mentioned it. Even those who drank in moderation would sometimes have declining mental health, which improved after they stopped drinking. He was clear in his opinion that alcohol never made any of his patients better, and most of the time, it made them much worse.
But is there more to the story than just alcohol wreaking havoc on our neurotransmitters? For me, alcohol did much more than mess with my brain. Alcohol stopped me from reading my intuition, and it destroyed my ability to feel. Of course, many people use alcohol because they don’t want to feel. In this sense, alcohol does a good job, but at the expense of our health and sometimes our lives.
The problem is, to move forward in life, we need to be able to understand our feelings. The ability to be a sentient being is what protects us and warns us. By blocking this out, we can’t respond effectively to harmful situations, which is why alcohol prevents trauma healing. And trauma is a significant precursor to most mental health issues. Once we look at it this way, we can see that alcohol may cause more mental health issues simply because we can’t process any feelings, which means trauma never gets addressed.
Using alcohol to suppress and avoid feelings can have a disastrous effect on our mental health simply because suppressed trauma never gets dealt with. Not only that, alcohol ensures that our nervous system is so damaged that we lose the ability to cope with our feelings at all. In studies looking at neuroplasticity, alcohol use can change our neurons to the point where we become wired to drink more. Guess what else changes our neurons? Trauma. Experts in neuroplasticity say that it can be complicated to change once our brains become wired a certain way. So in a sense, adding alcohol on top of trauma ensures our brains never heal at all.
Dr. Rego mentions that trauma can cause such difficulties for some people that their nervous systems may never find a normal baseline again. Now imagine adding alcohol on top of this situation?
As I review my history of alcohol use, trauma, and mental health issues, I see how my nervous system is still problematic. I am five and half years sober, and although my health is much better, I still suffer from nervous system dysfunction and likely will suffer for the rest of my life. Such is the fate of years of drinking and unprocessed trauma.
Unfortunately, this information is not widely discussed by the general public. More so, many doctors neglect to mention precisely how and why alcohol is so problematic. Most of the time, they provide stern warnings but rarely offer education about why there should be a warning in the first place.
My goal in writing these articles is not to shame or scare anyone. Instead, the more we understand how alcohol affects our physical and mental health, the more we can take earlier actions to prevent some of these problems from happening. Also, for those who have been suffering a long time, it can be helpful to understand the nature of that suffering so that proactive decision-making can take place.