September 25, 2012

Heavy Drinking Makes Anxiety Worse

Do you get nervous in social situations? A pint of beer can make you feel relaxed and at ease during an after dinner get together.

Have you had a stressful day? You can unwind with a nice glass of wine.

Alcohol has long been known for its calming properties.

However, it appears that too much alcohol can increase anxiety.

It has long been known that people with anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) tend to drink a lot, and that there is a link between PTSD and alcoholism.

Does drinking make it easier for people suffering from anxiety disorders to calm down? They might think so.

In fact, drinking could be making their anxiety worse.

Researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and UNC’s Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies found that they could generate symptoms of PTSD by giving large amounts of alcohol to mice.

High levels of alcohol intake actually changed the wiring in the brains of these mice, making it harder for them to recover from traumatic events.

The researchers gave a group of mice alcohol equivalent to twice the human driving limit. Another group of mice was not given any alcohol.

Mice in both groups were given an electric shock whenever they heard a bell.

As would be expected, they became afraid of the bell, freezing in fear at the sound of it.

After a while, the researchers started playing the bell without giving shocks.

Eventually, the teetotal mice stopped being afraid of the bell.

The mice that had been given alcohol continued to freeze whenever the bell was played, even though it no longer signaled danger.

Upon examination, it was found that these mice experienced changes in some nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex.   Activity in the NMDA receptor, which is associated with memory function and the development of alcoholism, was repressed.

Of course, the mice in the experiment did not choose to be given alcohol.

People with anxiety disorders, on the other hand, do choose to drink. They drink because they think alcohol will help them reduce their levels of anxiety – and it might, temporarily.

In the long run, however, a vicious cycle is created.  Anxiety causes these people to drink.  Heavy drinking causes changes to their brains, which increases their anxiety.  This causes them to drink even more.

Heavy drinking can lead to domestic violence.  Victims of domestic violence can then develop PTSD themselves –  and also become heavy drinkers.

Early medical intervention could help prevent people with anxiety disorders from developing problems with alcohol. If such people were to receive immediate access to counseling or other forms of other psychiatric care, they might find that there are better ways to deal with their anxiety than by drinking.

Alcohol is often used as  a form of self medication. It is socially acceptable. It is relatively inexpensive.  You do not need insurance to buy alcohol, and you don’t have to wait very long to get it.

It can be much quicker and cheaper to have a drink to calm yourself down temporarily than to see a professional.  In fact, some people might never have the opportunity to receive professional help for anxiety disorders.

Eventually, they may be forced to get help for alcoholism – if they live that long.

Image Credit: Oliver Sved / Shutterstock

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