Heavy Alcohol Use Affects Your Mental Health

Gillian May

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I engaged in heavy alcohol use between the ages of 14 and 41. I quit drinking six and a half years ago, and one of the biggest reasons I got sober was that my mental health was at an all-time low. My physical health was also declining, but my mental health symptoms were the most painful to endure.

As a former mental health nurse, you would think I’d know about the dangers of alcohol use and mental health, but I didn’t. I knew that alcohol carried dangers for the health of our organs and brains but had little understanding of the mechanism behind alcohol and why it caused my mental health to decline. On the one hand, this was partially due to my denial; I just didn’t want to know what alcohol was doing to me.

On the other hand, there was little public education about how alcohol manifests into mental health problems. Even amongst my psychiatry colleagues, we rarely talked about these issues. I am appalled by this, especially considering many of our patients came in with concurrent substance abuse, which included heavy alcohol use. I am also concerned that many doctors and psychiatrists tell their patients that it’s ok to have a few drinks per day.

We know from current research that the lifetime prevalence of any psychiatric disorder was 44% among people with an alcohol disorder. We also know that the treatment outcomes for people with psychiatric and alcohol use disorders are significantly worse than people with only one disorder.

Much of the current research focuses on people with more severe issues, but we know that many people are affected by mild mental illness and alcohol misuse. Although my symptoms were less severe than those involved in these studies, I still struggled greatly with my mental health while I was drinking. And I was shocked by how much my mental illness symptoms improved once I got sober.

Given that there isn’t enough information getting circulated about how alcohol affects mental health, we sometimes have to look at what’s happening within ourselves to get clues about our health status. Below are five signs that heavy alcohol use is affecting your mental health. These signs are based on my personal experience and research that backs up that experience.

Your anxiety worsens and doesn’t improve with any interventions.

The number one symptom of alcohol withdrawal is anxiety. And everyone who drinks heavily has experienced alcohol withdrawal. Even those who drink slightly past the safe limit (quite common for many adults) will experience alcohol withdrawal. Those who drink heavily and then stop for a while are particularly vulnerable to withdrawal-induced anxiety.

People who already have an anxiety disorder may initially choose alcohol to curb their symptoms, only to be met with more ferocious anxiety in between drinking sessions. Unfortunately, the neurological mechanism that causes anxiety symptoms in alcohol withdrawal can also greatly exacerbate other mental illnesses (i.e., bipolar disorder or personality disorders). The simple reason is that alcohol is neurotoxic and, as such, affects the same brain and nerve impulses that also have a hand in creating mental illness.

You feel you need to drink to cope with worsening mental illness symptoms.

Along the same lines, as mental illness symptoms increase and alcohol tolerance also increases, you may feel the need to drink more to cope with worsening mental illness symptoms.

However, since the general public doesn’t know why alcohol affects mental health, they may choose to drink even more to get the numbing effects. This creates cycles of worsening mental illness followed by worsening alcohol abuse.

The addictive nature of alcohol use is clear, but what we don’t talk about enough is how mental illness can interact with alcohol abuse to create an even more vicious cycle. What I mean is that alcohol abuse alone is enough to create cycles of use and abuse. But when mental illness is present, this process can be even worse than just the regular problems with increasing tolerance for alcohol use.

Your mental health medications don’t seem to work anymore.

The research is scarce concerning exactly how alcohol affects mental health medications. But we know that alcohol interacts with many other classes of medications and, therefore, would likely affect psychotropic medicines.

In a recent conversation with psychiatrist Mark Rego, he says that many of his patients, including those who only used mild doses of alcohol, would often decompensate with alcohol use. He noted that some patients, who would be stable for years on medication, would suddenly destabilize with alcohol use (even with small amounts) and the same dose of medications. Once they discontinued alcohol use, they would return to their baseline.

Since Dr. Rego’s patients improved with the use of medications before the drinking, he reasoned that the alcohol must have interfered with their medications enough to get sick again.

Coping strategies that used to work no longer help.

Another tell-tale sign is when coping strategies that used to work no longer help quell the mental health symptoms once the person begins drinking heavily. Throughout my 20+ years of drinking, I would go through patches where I drank less and engaged more in healthy coping strategies. During these moments, my mental illness symptoms would significantly improve.

However, once my drinking increased, my mental illness symptoms returned with a vengeance. I was further convinced of this when I stopped drinking altogether and noticed that I no longer struggled with anxiety or depression. It was when I reduced or stopped my drinking that my coping strategies could actually work for me.

Your nervous system feels out of balance.

A tell-talI sign of the neurotoxic effect of long-term alcohol abuse is a dysregulated nervous system. This seems like an obvious issue since most people understand that alcohol is neurotoxic. But few people connect their worsening mental illness to a nervous system thrown off by alcohol abuse.

In one literature review focusing on the effects of alcohol on the nervous system, the author exclaims that “excessive drinking over a prolonged period of time can cause serious problems with cognition and memory. Alcohol interacts with the brain receptors, interfering with the communication between nerve cells and suppressing excitatory nerve pathway activity.”

Furthermore, “neuro-cognitive deficits, neuronal injury, and neurodegeneration are well documented in alcoholics, yet the underlying mechanisms remain elusive.” We know that alcohol degrades the nervous system and causes serious health issues for the brain and nerves. Still, we don’t talk enough about how this plays out in mental illness origins or worsening symptoms in an already established mental illness.

The important takeaway is that the facts show a connection between alcoholism and worsening mental health. We also know that these effects are relevant not only for people who drink heavily but also for those who drink moderately. As Dr. Rego says, people with mental illness can decompensate even with lower doses of alcohol. We also know that new mental health symptoms can emerge in people who begin drinking more than usual.

This means that we, the general public, need further education and awareness around how alcohol affects our mental health. I’d encourage anyone who has a mental illness and engages in heavy alcohol to ask their doctors more about this combination. However, it seems clear that reducing or quitting alcohol appears to be a good idea for those who battle mental health issues.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work - https://upbeat-trader-4181.ck.page/839d0ab3f9.

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