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Alcohol Abuse and Mental Health

Alcohol and Mental Health Effects

The co-occurrence of alcohol and mental health disorders is very prevalent in the U.S.

One in four adults with a mental health disorder also suffers from alcohol use disorder (AUD). Both conditions have similar underlying causes such as genetic predisposition, exposure to stress or trauma, and changes in brain chemistry. 

Unfortunately, many people with underlying mental health conditions turn to substance use, such as drinking alcohol. They do so to self-medicate and avoid the negative feelings associated with their mental illnesses. 

Turning to alcohol rather than coping with these mental health problems can actually worsen your mental state and overall well-being. And, heavy drinking can result in serious consequences over time, such as suicidal thoughts, ideations, or attempts.  

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Link Between Alcohol Abuse and Mental Health

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) and mental health disorders can co-occur in a few different ways.

For example, those with existing mental health disorders may turn to alcohol to self-medicate. When symptoms escalate, alcohol provides a quick mood boost and relieves symptoms temporarily. But once the effects wear off, the symptoms worsen. This creates a vicious cycle of drinking and mood changes.

People with substance use problems are also predisposed to mental health disorders. This is because alcohol is a depressant, so it can trigger symptoms in those predisposed to depression.

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Mood?

Drinking alcohol increases confidence and decreases inhibition. Alcohol also affects everyone differently. Some people notice an increase in mood, while others may feel depressed

Excessive alcohol consumption also disrupts the sleep cycle, so the body has to work harder to break it down. Poor sleep every night results in less energy. This leads to constant mood changes, poor concentration, and other health problems like decreased immunity.

Those who drink heavily also experience "numb" emotions, which means they feel apathetic and uninterested when not drinking. 

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What Is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), formerly known as alcoholism, is an unhealthy form of alcohol use that includes drinking excessively on a regular basis. This includes binge drinking.

Symptoms of AUD include:

  • Being unable to limit your alcohol consumption
  • Drinking alone
  • Having to drink more alcohol to achieve the same results
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from drinking
  • Continuing to drink even when it causes physical, emotional, or social problems
  • Giving up once-loved activities
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you do not drink
  • Mental Health Disorders Associated with Substance Abuse

In the U.S., there is a high co-occurrence of alcohol abuse and mental health disorders. For reference, a co-occurring disorder is when an individual receives a dual diagnosis for both a substance use disorder (SUD) and mental health disorder.

Certain mental health disorders are highly prevalent in people who have alcohol dependence. These disorders included mood disorders, such as:

  • Depression, including major depressive disorder and bipolar depression 
  • Anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Mood Disorders
  • Autism (possibly)

Mood disorders are the most common mental health disorders among people with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Alcohol consumption is often used as a way for people to self-medicate and temporarily reduce their symptoms. Unfortunately, this relief is short-lived, leaving many to suffer from increased symptoms after drinking. 

Depression

Depression affects over 16 million adults in the U.S. This condition negatively affects how a person feels, thinks, and handles daily activities.

While everyone experiences ups and downs in life, people with depression experience these down periods for more than two weeks at a time. These episodes make them highly susceptible to substance abuse to improve mood and self-medicate. 

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Continuous sad or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Increased irritability
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or social activities
  • Decreased energy
  • Problems with concentration and memory
  • Changes in sleep
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a condition that causes mood swings ranging from manic highs to depressive lows. These mood swings can affect everything from sleep and energy levels to one’s ability to think clearly.

The co-occurrence of bipolar disorder and alcohol is very common. Symptoms of bipolar disorder depend on whether it's manic or depressive.

Mania or hypomania symptoms:

  • Abnormally upbeat and jumpy
  • A major increase in activity levels
  • Agitation
  • High level of self-confidence
  • Very talkative
  • Easily distracted
  • Poor decision making

Depressive symptoms:

  • Feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Loss of interest
  • Sleep changes, insomnia, or continual sleeping
  • Loss of energy and fatigue
  • Thoughts of suicide or death

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a normal part of life. However, those with anxiety disorders experience frequent, intense episodes of fear about everyday situations. These fears can affect everyday activities and make life very difficult.

There are many different anxiety disorders. This includes generalized anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and panic disorder.

Symptoms of anxiety disorders include:

  • Regular feelings of nervousness and restlessness
  • A sense of impending danger
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hyperventilation
  • Sweating
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Stomach problems

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a serious mental health disorder that affects how a person interprets reality. It includes hallucinations, delusions, and impaired thinking that can be disabling. It is one of the top 15 causes of disability worldwide.

While substance abuse is common in people with schizophrenia, alcohol use greatly increases the risk of schizophrenia in those predisposed to the condition.

Symptoms of schizophrenia include:

  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorganized thinking
  • Abnormal motor behavior
  • Loss of interest in everyday activities
  • Lack of emotion
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Unpredictable agitation

How is Treatment for Mental Health Disorders and Substance Abuse Different?

Treatment for co-occurring conditions presents unique challenges. Treating only one condition may worsen the other and can increase the occurrence of relapse.

Those who suffer from mental health disorders and substance abuse require specialized treatment. Treatment should also take place in a facility experienced in treating co-occurring conditions.

A treatment program typically begins with detox. This is because symptoms of addiction often mimic those of mental health conditions. By detoxing first, medical providers can evaluate what symptoms are actually alcohol-related. 

Once detox is complete, treatment will focus on the mental health condition. This may include medications, counseling, support groups, and other therapy options.

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Updated on May 27, 2022
13 sources cited
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  2. “Anxiety Disorders.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 4 May 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961.
  3. “Bipolar Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 31 Jan. 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bipolar-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355955.
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  8. “Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders.” Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders | MentalHealth.gov, https://www.mentalhealth.gov/what-to-look-for/mental-health-substance-use-disorders.
  9. Newman, Tim. “Schizophrenia Risk Increased with Alcohol, Drug Abuse.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 21 Oct. 2016, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313602#4.
  10. Quello, Susan B, et al. “Mood Disorders and Substance Use Disorder: a Complex Comorbidity.” Science & Practice Perspectives, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dec. 2005, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851027/.
  11. “Schizophrenia.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 10 Apr. 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/schizophrenia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354443.
  12. “Schizophrenia.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/schizophrenia.
  13. Smith, Joshua P, and Carrie L Randall. “Anxiety and Alcohol Use Disorders: Comorbidity and Treatment Considerations.” Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860396/.

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