How does alcohol affect mental health?

Wanting to change how we feel is often the reason for having alcohol. Some people do it to relax, celebrate or just to unwind and switch off after a long day at work.

Another reason for drinking is to try to mask anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. This can be a cause for concern because while alcohol can improve our mood for a short time, in the long term it can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing.

“In the UK, people who experience anxiety or depression are twice as likely to be heavy or problem drinkers.” – Drinkaware

Mood changes in the short and long term

Regardless of what mood you are in when you start drinking, if you drink a lot of alcohol, any pleasant effects that you feel won’t keep increasing as you continue to drink. Feelings of happiness or elation can quickly tip over into negative ones, such as sadness, anger, aggression, anxiety or depression.

Some people have gone through depression or anxiety first and turned to alcohol to try to mask or relieve these feelings. For other people, heavy drinking has been the root cause of their depression or anxiety.

“Anxiety and depression are more common in heavy drinkers – heavy drinking is more common in those with anxiety and depression.” – Drinkaware

Alcohol and depression can be a vicious cycle because drinking heavily and regularly is likely to bring about some symptoms of depression.

So how exactly does alcohol affect the brain?

Regular drinking decreases the levels of serotonin in our brain. Serotonin is the chemical that helps to regulate our mood. At work in the human brain is a delicate balance of chemicals and processes in order for it to function properly. Because alcohol is a depressant, it can impact this balance, which can affect feelings, thoughts and actions.

The chemicals in the brain that help to send signals from one nerve to another (neurotransmitters) are affected by alcohol. So when you drink and get a relaxed feeling, this is because of chemical changes in the brain caused by the alcohol. As much as alcohol can make you feel relaxed, it can just as easily bring about feelings of depression and anxiety.

Alcohol can also make it more difficult to deal with stress. Once again the reason for this is that regular and heavy drinking affects the neurotransmitters in our brains. We need the neurotransmitters to be in balance in order to have good mental health – and alcohol disrupts this balance.

Alcohol and mood cycle

Alcohol and low mood cycle

Impact on relationships and work

Drinking heavily can affect your relationships with people around you, like your partner, family, friends and work colleagues. It can have an adverse effect on your performance at work and put your job in jeopardy, causing further stress or depression. This is another reason why alcohol can cause a vicious cycle.

Alcohol and perception

When you drink, your perception of a situation becomes narrower and you don’t always see all of the cues around you.

“If we are prone to anxiety and notice something that could be interpreted as threatening in the environment, we’ll hone in on that and miss the other less threatening or neutral information” – Drinkaware

Confronting your issues

Experts say that drinking alcohol is a way of avoiding problems or issues in your life. If you don’t deal with the issues that are causing stress or anxiety, it is difficult to get out of the cycle. Try speaking to a trusted friend or colleague about what is causing you to worry. Externalising what is on your mind, and discussing potential solutions may be all that you need to feel better.

If you don’t have anyone to speak to, give Samaritans a call and talk it over with a trained listener, who can help you explore what’s happening and ideas for moving forward. You can also speak to your GP or the Tayside Council on Alcohol about counselling.

How can I tell if alcohol is affecting my mood?

Alcohol can disturb your sleep. It can also make you feel lethargic and tired all the time, which relates to sleep deprivation and also the general effect that it has on your body and brain.

If you have a low mood and you’re not sure why, think about how much you are drinking and if you’re exceeding the government guidelines. Do you feel anxious in situations that you would normally feel comfortable and are not sure why? Alcohol could be the cause of this.

Tips to improve your mood

Whatever stress you’re facing, there are more effective ways to cope with it than drinking too much alcohol.

    • Try some exercise and relaxation techniques to deal with stress instead of turning to alcohol. Exercise is a great way to de-stress – power walking is a great way to help you feel better and shed off your worries.
  • Breathing techniques can be helpful when you feel anxious, worried or stressed. They can be particularly helpful if you feel dizzy or light headed. These symptoms can happen because your breathing gets quicker when you feel distressed, which can be an uncomfortable and unpleasant experience. It can make you even more on edge, and a vicious cycle can occur. Learning controlled breathing exercises can help you to manage these feelings more effectively. It can also help to give your mind and body a chance to calm down.

Alcohol and behaviour

Alcohol can make people lose their inhibitions and behave impulsively, so it can lead to actions they might not otherwise have taken. This includes self-harm and suicide. According to NHS in Scotland, more than half of patients who have ended up in hospital because of deliberate injuries have been under the influence of alcohol.

Alcohol and psychosis

Extreme levels of drinking (more than 30 units per day for a few weeks) can cause ‘psychosis’, which is a severe mental illness where hallucinations and delusions of persecution develop.

Psychotic symptoms can also occur when very heavy drinkers suddenly stop drinking and develop a condition known as ‘delirium tremens’ – symptoms include body tremors and confusion. Therefore, it can be dangerous just to stop drinking completely if your body is physically dependent on alcohol. Read our ‘Coping with detox guide’ for more information.

Alcohol and memory

Soon after drinking alcohol, your brain processes slow down and your memory can be impaired. After large quantities of alcohol, the brain can stop recording into the ‘memory store’. That’s why you can wake up the next day with a ‘blank’ about what you said or did and even where you were.

This short-term memory failure or ‘black out’ doesn’t mean that brain cells have been damaged, but frequent heavy sessions can damage the brain because of the effect that alcohol has on the brain’s processes.

Drinking heavily over a long period of time can also have long-term effects on memory. Even on days when you don’t drink any alcohol, recalling what you did yesterday, or even where you have been earlier that day, can become difficult.

Staying in control

Drinking within the government’s lower risk guidelines will help keep your drinking in control. Drinkaware suggest three ways that you can cut back:

  1. Try alternative ways to deal with stress. Instead of reaching for a beer or glass of wine after a hard day, go for a run, swim or to a yoga class, or a talk to a friend about what’s worrying you.
  2. Keep track of what you’re drinking. Your liver can’t tell you if you’re drinking too much, but the MyDrinkaware drinks calculator can. It can even help you cut down.
  3. Try having alcohol-free days. If you drink regularly, your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol. This is why medical experts recommend taking regular days off from drinking to ensure you don’t become dependent on alcohol. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice.

Help and support

Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.

If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential 24/7 helpline. Call 0800 917 8282.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, despair or suicidal thoughts, Samaritans provides confidential non-judgemental emotional support, 24 hours a day. You can ring them on 08457 90 90 900 or email (they try their best to get back to you within 24 hours). The Dundee branch of Samaritans is reachable on 01382 832 555.

Visit the NHS MOODJUICE website for fast and direct help to self-help resources.

Read the NHS Moodzone page ‘Stress, Anxiety and Depression: How to feel better’

Find out about the TCA’s Counselling service and Support Groups or get in touch with us on 01382 456012 /