Biting the Hands that Feed Each Other: Stress and Alcohol

Stressed businesswoman

Your boss wants the project on their desk first thing tomorrow morning. Your rent is due and you’re short, again. You forgot about your anniversary. It’s Monday.

When you finally get home, you have a drink or two to wind down, which isn’t necessarily a problem, not yet. According to Gateway Aurora Executive Director Jim Scarpace, stress-related drinking becomes a problem when someone starts relying on alcohol as a way to self-medicate, when alcohol becomes the only form of stress-relief.

To be clear, stress and anxiety are different from stress and anxiety disorders. We all experience stress and anxiety to a degree. Stress is sometimes even healthy. It tells our body and our brain to react to a threat. It can kick-start our body to fight off an infection or help us perform better under pressure. However, unmanaged and acute or long-term stress can damage our bodies and our minds.

Although alcohol in small doses acts like a stimulant, or a pick-me-up, alcohol is a depressant, meaning it lowers activity of the central nervous system; simply put, it relaxes us. If someone turns to the bottle time and time again under stress, however, they will likely develop an association between the two, a habit, and then a tolerance to its stress-alleviating properties. It will take more alcohol to feel the same level of relief, increasing vulnerability to addiction.

Despite alcohol’s ability to diminish stress, studies have shown it dually extends the negative experience of stressors and decreases alcohol’s positive effects. So the negative emotion associated with that project – still due tomorrow – may be even worse when you present it to your boss the next day.

People in recovery may need to overcome more hurdles to cope with stressors without the help of alcohol. Studies have also indicated people in recovery experience increased rates of relapse in the face of life stressors.

However, finding support and healthy coping mechanisms can reduce alcohol misuse, relapse rates, and stress levels.

Alternative ways to relieve stress:
– Exercise or go for a walk
– Laugh – at a video, TV show, or meme (here’s one to get you started)
– Listen to music
– Journal or craft
– Take a nap
– Spend time with pets or people you love

“If you’re struggling to stop using alcohol and not getting any relief from your coping mechanisms, then you really need to get support through medically assisted treatment or counseling or both,” Scarpace advises, “and that’s where treatment comes in.”

How do you deal with stress? Share your healthy stress relievers with us this month @RecoverGateway on Facebook and Twitter.

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