As with any addiction, alcoholism is closely connected with stress. And while plenty of people first started drinking as a way to cope with stress or even just wind down after a long day, developing an alcohol use disorder can end up causing significant stresses of its own. If you’re thinking about pursuing alcohol use disorder treatment for yourself or for a loved one, it can be helpful to understand how alcohol is connected to stress.
Present Stress That Can Lead to Alcohol Use
While stresses from your past can certainly contribute to alcoholism, plenty of people also start to develop alcohol use disorder as they struggle to cope with current stress. Often, people end up turning to alcohol in order to try to manage the stresses of day-to-day life. These can include pressure at work or at school, marriage, and divorce, moving, and financial issues.
Minority stress is also an important consideration. If you’re a minority (either in terms of race/ethnicity or sexual orientation), you face unique stresses. You might stress about being passed over for a promotion at work, and you also might fear harassment or becoming the victim of a hate crime.
It’s important to note that stress alone typically does not cause a substance use disorder. However, significant stresses may place you at higher risk of developing one, and high stress levels in sobriety can also make relapse more likely. High stress is a risk factor for alcoholism, along with the following:
- One or more close relatives who have an alcohol use disorder
- Depression and other mental health disorders
- Heavy drinking over time (which can sometimes result in alcohol-induced dementia)
- Social factors (like the way alcohol is viewed or treated in your community)
- A history of past traumas
Past Stress That Can Lead to Alcohol Use
Unfortunately, it isn’t just current stressful events that can predispose you to drink more. Stresses and traumas from your past can also play a role in alcoholism. Several studies point to childhood abuse and neglect as being a significant factor in the development of an alcohol use disorder. One study found that emotional abuse and neglect were most commonly seen in men and women seeking help for alcoholism. The severity of their alcoholism correlated with the severity of the abuse.
Past traumas, even if they were not experienced in childhood, may also make someone more likely to experience alcoholism. Many people with an alcohol use disorder also have PTSD. As with other mental health diagnoses, the relationship between alcoholism and PTSD becomes a vicious cycle. Alcohol use makes PTSD symptoms worse, and the PTSD symptoms make alcoholism worse.
If you have experienced trauma and are also struggling with alcohol use disorder, it’s easy to feel as though there is no hope. But at Granite Recovery Centers, we offer evidence-based therapies including trauma therapy. In therapy for trauma and PTSD, you will be able to process your trauma and develop healthier coping strategies to help you avoid self-destructive behaviors. With these therapies, you’ll be able to break the cycle of worsening symptoms and experience a greater quality of life.
How Can Alcohol Use Cause Stress?
While it might seem logical that alcohol use can cause stress, there’s also a good bit of biochemical evidence to explain, at least in part, how alcohol shapes your stress response. Even in the short term, alcohol consumption increases levels of cortisol. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, and your body also releases it during periods of intense anxiety or fear. In the short term, a cortisol release can be helpful — it increases alertness and focus, which was helpful evolutionarily because it helped humans and animals get themselves out of dangerous situations.
However, having elevated cortisol over a long period of time can be detrimental, exhausting, and even dangerous. And in chronic heavy drinkers and those with alcohol use disorder, cortisol isn’t just elevated during intoxication — it stays elevated through withdrawal. In fact, one study even found that cortisol increased as intoxicated people started moving toward withdrawals. If you’ve ever experienced intense anxiety when withdrawing from alcohol, you’ve felt this cortisol surge firsthand.
Because most people with an alcohol use disorder go through a near-constant cycle of intoxication and withdrawal, cortisol can remain elevated for years on end. Chronically elevated cortisol can cause a number of ill health effects:
- Slow healing (of wounds, broken bones, etc.)
- Thinning skin
- Weight gain
- Extreme fatigue
- Trouble focusing
- Muscle weakness
- Elevated blood pressure
Chronically elevated cortisol may cause other health problems as well, but more research is needed to determine exactly what these effects are. Of course, the physical stresses of elevated cortisol combined with chronic heavy drinking can mean your body is put through a lot of physical stress as well as emotional stress.
You already know that plenty of people use alcohol to alleviate stress, but over time, alcohol can cause its own significant stresses. As mentioned above, the elevated cortisol you experience while intoxicated and in withdrawal can cause significant emotional distress. When your body is under stress, and elevated cortisol is effectively causing a constant stress response, it becomes significantly more difficult to handle even everyday stresses.
And in some cases (like when you are intoxicated enough to experience blackouts or respiratory suppression), being intoxicated can be a stressful experience in itself. And for many people with an alcohol use disorder, that stressful experience is something they experience on a daily or near-daily basis. Some of the physical effects of heavy drinking — including dizziness, nausea, headaches, and dehydration — can compound the emotional stress you’re already feeling.
Many people also consciously or unconsciously use alcohol to self-medicate psychiatric disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder. However, in many cases, alcohol use worsens the symptoms of mental health issues, which can cause considerably more emotional distress on a daily basis. In some cases, heavy alcohol use can even contribute to the development of new mental health diagnoses.
If you’ve been using alcohol to help manage a mental health diagnosis (or to help manage a mental health issue that has not yet been diagnosed), Granite Recovery Centers’ dual diagnosis treatment program can help you. With this approach, medical and recovery professionals work with you to find better treatments and coping mechanisms for your mental health diagnosis while also helping you manage your alcohol use disorder. In many cases, this treatment approach will greatly improve your quality of life, as you’ll be much better equipped to manage both diagnoses.
Regardless of whether you have a mental health diagnosis or not, heavy alcohol use can begin to cause stress as it starts to affect the rest of your life. For example, you may constantly worry whether someone will smell alcohol on your breath at work, or you may worry about when you can take another drink. For many people with an alcohol use disorder, it can start to feel like leading a double life, which becomes exhausting and highly stressful over time. And as a person starts to drink more, they often become more socially isolated. Feeling isolated can increase stress, and the person may then continue drinking heavily to cope with that stress.
If you struggle with an alcohol use disorder or other substance use disorder, you already know just how stressful day-to-day life can become. If you have to drink to get rid of withdrawal symptoms and can’t control your drinking once you start, it’s easy to feel trapped, which is, of course, a major stress in itself. If you feel this way, you aren’t alone — taking the first steps to get help can free you from the seemingly unending cycle of alcohol use.
How Do I Know If I’ve Developed an Alcohol Use Disorder?
If you have started using alcohol as a way to cope with stress, it can be difficult to tell whether you have developed an alcohol use disorder or if you are beginning to develop one. While you’ll need to consult a medical professional if you’re looking for a definite diagnosis, you can look for some of the common signs:
- Spending a lot of time both drinking and recovering from drinking
- Not being able to control how much you drink once you start
- Continuing to drink even when you experience negative consequences
- Giving up on hobbies or responsibilities in order to drink
- Developing an alcohol tolerance
- Craving alcohol or becoming preoccupied with drinking when you can’t drink
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink (or drinking to ensure you avoid these symptoms)
- Using alcohol when it is dangerous to do so (like when you’re driving)
Binge drinking can also be a sign of a developing alcohol use disorder. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more standard drinks in two hours for men and consuming four or more standard drinks in two hours for women. On its own, binge drinking doesn’t necessarily indicate an alcohol use disorder, but it could be a sign that one is starting to develop.
It’s important to keep in mind that alcohol use disorders are on a spectrum. Milder cases tend to have fewer symptoms present, while more severe cases have more. Even if you think you only have a mild case, you can still benefit tremendously from treatment. Most cases of alcohol use disorder become progressively worse over time.
How Can Treatment Help?
If you’re unfamiliar with substance use disorder treatment, you may think residential treatment’s only benefit is preventing you from accessing your substance of choice. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A good residential treatment program takes a holistic approach to help you improve your life.
In most cases (and definitely in severe cases), a stay at a residential treatment center begins with a medical detox program. In medical detox, you’ll be supervised by a doctor and likely given medication to prevent seizures and other complications of alcohol withdrawal. Withdrawing from alcohol on your own can be very dangerous, and inpatient detox can ensure that you’re safe.
Once you’re in treatment, you’ll work with counselors and medical professionals to help you identify issues that make you want to drink. These professionals will help you develop healthier coping mechanisms to deal with stress so you’ll be less likely to turn to alcohol in the future. You may get to participate in cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy, as well as trauma therapy if needed.
Nutritional deficiencies developed while drinking heavily can add to stress and feeling generally unwell, so residential rehabilitation includes healthy food and ample exercise opportunities. And if you have a co-occurring mental health condition, on-site professionals will help you develop an effective treatment plan.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
Alcohol is an easy answer to stress for many people. But if you have an alcohol use disorder, chances are good that alcohol only causes more stress and worsens the stress you already have. And if the prospect of quitting by yourself seems like too much, don’t worry—the professionals working with Granite Recovery Centers will be helping you every step of the way. If you’re ready to change your life, give us a call at 855-712-7784 today!