Saturday, August 2, 2014

Alcohol and Anxiety

Alcohol both relieves and heightens anxiety.

In school, we learned about the effects of caffeine on our bodies.  Caffeine, we are told, blocks receptors in the brain which normally receive chemicals that indicate fatigue.   These chemicals are necessary to tell the brain that the body is tired, and to slow down and get rest.   Caffeine, by blocking these receptors, allows the user to stay awake and alert longer.

The downside is, the brain grows new receptors, apparently, in response to caffeine use.  So, over time, the more coffee you drink, the less an effect it has on you.  So you drink more and more to get the same effect, turning into a "coffee fiend" over time.

Of course, the effects of coffee are deemed benign in our society, so there is no AA for Coffee drinkers.  Other mood-altering substances, such as nicotine, can be more harmful, particularly in their delivery systems.   But the key is, these are mood-altering drugs, even if the moods created are somewhat difficult to discern.

Alcohol, on the other hand, can have dramatic effects on behavior, so a problem with alcohol can be a major personal and social problem in short order.  And part of this problem is how alcohol affects anxiety.

People drink to relax.  In social situations, a drink can reduce anxiety and make it easier to "mix" with others.  At the end of a stressful day, a drink can relax the mind and body.

But what if alcohol has the same effect as caffeine?   In particular, it seems that alcohol does relieve anxiety.   But in response, the brain cranks up whatever chemicals produce anxiety, causing a spiral of increasing consumption over time.

Anxiety, like fatigue, has a positive survival effect on the brain.   Fatigue tells us we need to sleep and rest.  Anxiety tells us we need to think about things and make sure tasks are completed.   Excessive anxiety, however, can literally drive you crazy, causing your brain to reel and surge, like a car stuck in neutral with the engine gunning.   Anxiety disrupts sleep patterns, causes people to behave irrationally, and causes social avoidance.

And when you consume alcohol, well, it does relieve anxiety - perhaps too much so.   We start to think, while intoxicated, that we are witty and funny and can sing Karaoke.  Some think they can drive when they shouldn't.   Some get belligerent and think they can take on the whole bar.  Total release from Anxiety, even if temporary, can have very negative side effects.

Alcohol temporarily relieves anxiety, but then pays it back double, in terms of increased anxiety, once its effects wear off.  So the user drinks more to relieve the increased anxiety, and so on, in a spiral of increased consumption.  Before long, well, you've become an alcoholic.

Addiction works this way - providing a temporary relief from life's stresses and difficulties, but then paying them back double.   The addicted gambler lives for the thrill of a win, but his continued losses push him to gamble more and more.   

Most people talk about "physical addiction" in terms of drug users - as if the user would die or something if they didn't have the drug.  However, I wonder if the same effect is in place - the drug relieving one emotional temporarily, and then increasing the level of the same emotion when the drug wears off.   Alcoholics complain about the "DT's" or hallucinations when they stop drinking.  I wonder if these are not just extreme manifestations of anxiety.

My Mother drank to excess, and I think this was to relieve anxiety.  She had a lot to be anxious about.   But over time, the original anxiety was replaced with alcohol-induced anxiety - an unfocused general fear of the world and generic worry.  She would stay awake all night long, and then sleep until late in the morning.  Worry consumed her.  And when drunk, that anxiety would release, causing her to enter these argumentative fugue states.   Drunks become argumentative because without anxiety, they are convinced they are right about everything.

Alcohol is quite prevalent in our culture, society, and history.   Granted, there are a few religious sects who shun the practice.   When you drink alcohol, it seems that these blue-noses are always trying to spoil all the fun by making you wait until 12:00 on Sunday to buy beer.   When you don't drink, it seems that the drinkers outnumber the non-drinkers by 10 to 1 (which they probably do) and most leisure activities, it seems, tend to focus on or center around, alcohol consumption.   It is a matter of perspective.

I started drinking around age 13 or so.  My parents would make cocktails for me as a teenager, convinced that it was a "rite of passage" or something.  My late Sister thought that her little brother would "mellow out" on Marijuana.   More than a decade later, I decided to quit both, as neither seemed to help my life very much.   Once off the drugs and alcohol, my confidence returned (that anxiety thing again) and I finished my Engineering degree and Law degree, got a good job with a law firm and even started my own law practice.

But over time, alcohol crept back into my life (it is a cultural thing in Japan, even moreso than in the USA) and I found my consumption increasing - along with unfocused anxiety.  In addition, it was causing or enhancing some severe health problems (Gout and Diverticulitis).  So I decided to give it up - again - and see what happens.  Already I can see I am sleeping better and have more self-confidence.   It is tempting to have that "relaxing cocktail" of course.  But I realize now that the relaxation offered by the cocktail is paid back by a double-dose of anxiety later on.

There are other effects as well.   At about 100 calories a serving, it is not hard to increase your caloric intake by 50% or more, just in alcohol.   Middle-aged men develop the "gut" due to alcohol consumption.

And then there is the cost.   Alcohol isn't cheap, and can easily equal 25-50% of your food budget.  When dining out, the cost of cocktails and a bottle of wine can easily exceed the food portion of the bill.   And let's not forget that those aforementioned health problems can be rather expensive as well.

People drink alcohol to relieve anxiety.  But instead, it is like throwing gasoline on the fire.  The more you consume, the more you need to consume, just to stay ahead.   I suspect that marijuana has the same effect, except that when stoned, anxiety can still be present (paranoia).

I suspect the fewer mood-altering substances you consume, the better off you are.