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How Does Alcohol Affect Mental Health?

When depression, anxiety, worry, fear, or stress have a detrimental impact on your daily functioning, you may look to dull your symptoms with alcohol. Alcohol can bring about a temporary sense of calm and relaxation that is a welcome relief from your mental health symptoms. Unfortunately, using alcohol to manage symptoms associated with mental illness often leads to additional problems, including the physical and psychological impacts of an alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction.

How Does Alcohol Impact the Brain?

Your brain is skilled at adaptation. It can physically alter its structure to adapt itself to your environment. This allows you to perform better and more efficiently at whatever you are doing. If you are participating in healthy hobbies or activities, this is beneficial to your performance and function. However, if you consistently drink, alcohol impacts the brain and may begin to alter its form and function to help you function better with alcohol in your system.

When this happens, the brain changes how nerve cells communicate. It changes how the reward centers in the brain operate, resulting in increased cravings for alcohol and the feeling that one “cannot function” without alcohol in their system. Alcohol use also makes it more difficult for the brain areas that control speech, memory, balance, and judgment to perform their jobs. Unfortunately, some of these changes are irreversible.

Depending on the severity and duration of your addiction, once an alcoholic stops drinking, some of the alterations to the brain and its function may remain a problem throughout their lives. In some instances, alcohol and dependency can lead to new or worsening mental health symptoms or co-occurring disorders (a mental illness and simultaneous alcohol addiction) that require specialized treatment to overcome safely.

How Does Alcohol Affect Mental Health?

Alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction cause physical and functional changes in the brain. Short-term effects of alcohol use on the brain (and brain functions) include blackouts, memory problems, poor judgment, and mood changes. Chronic, untreated alcohol addiction often leads to mental health effects that are more severe and sometimes permanent. These may include mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and others.

When you struggle with both a mental health condition and an alcohol use disorder (alcohol addiction or alcoholism), it is called a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. Some statistics suggest up to half of those who struggle with a mental illness also experience symptoms related to a substance use disorder.

Dual diagnosis conditions frequently occur because of self-medication. Many people turn to alcohol to cope with symptoms of a mental health condition. Using alcohol to reduce or manage the severity of symptoms is not without potential dangers. In some instances, alcohol use will help alleviate symptoms for a short time; however, once the alcohol wears off, undesirable symptoms return.

Sometimes when the fear, sadness, or stress returns, it does so in a more severe and more intense way leading you to drink more often and more frequently to keep these feelings at bay. Using alcohol to self-medicate is a common but ineffective solution that often causes worsening symptoms. For some, using alcohol to manage mental health symptoms may also cause new symptoms to appear. This is especially true when you try to reduce or stop drinking and experience withdrawal.

Alcohol’s Short-Term Effects on Mood and Mental Health

When you drink, alcohol enters your bloodstream and goes straight to your brain. Within minutes, you’ll feel the effects as alcohol impacts your mood and mental state. 

At first, alcohol acts as a stimulant, elevating your mood and decreasing anxiety. This high feeling makes you want to keep drinking. But in reality, alcohol is a depressant that slows down your central nervous system.

As you continue drinking, alcohol’s depressant effects take over. Your mood and cognition become impaired. You may feel overly emotional, irritable, or sad. Your judgment and decision-making skills decline. This can lead to risky behavior and poor choices that negatively impact your mental health and relationships.

The next day, the effects of a hangover can worsen symptoms of depression or anxiety. Feelings of guilt or shame may surface. This vicious cycle repeats each time you drink heavily, creating a rollercoaster effect on your mental and emotional well-being.

While alcohol may temporarily reduce stress or make you feel good, its negative repercussions far outweigh any benefits. Relying on alcohol to cope with or self-medicate mental health issues is not a viable long-term solution and will only make problems worse. The best approach is to limit alcohol, focus on healthy coping strategies, and get a proper diagnosis and treatment. Your mental health and happiness depend on it.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Mental Wellbeing

Long-term alcohol abuse takes a major toll on your mental health and wellbeing. After years of heavy drinking, irreversible changes happen in your brain that intensify symptoms of depression and anxiety and make coping with stressful life events much harder.


Chronic alcohol use disrupts the neurotransmitters in your brain that regulate mood and stress, often leading to depression. This can trap you in a vicious cycle where you drink to relieve symptoms of depression, but the alcohol only makes your depression worse over time. Breaking this cycle is challenging but critical for improving your mental health.

Anxiety and Stress

Excessive alcohol consumption also damages the parts of your brain involved in managing anxiety, fear, and stress. This makes you increasingly prone to feelings of worry, panic, and being overwhelmed. Tasks that used to seem manageable now feel impossible to cope with without drinking. Learning healthier ways to manage anxiety and find inner calm becomes vital.

Impaired Coping Skills

Prolonged alcohol abuse weakens your ability to deal with difficult life events in a constructive way. Instead of facing problems head-on, you turn to the bottle for escape and solace. This avoidance and numbing effect prevents you from developing effective coping strategies to handle stressful situations. Regaining these life skills through counseling and support groups is essential for sustained recovery and wellness.

The negative impacts of long-term alcohol use on your mental health and coping abilities are extensive but often reversible. However, the longer and more heavily you drink, the more work it will take to repair the damage. Sobriety and professional support offer the hope of recovery and the opportunity to build resilience, find healthier ways of coping, and reclaim your mental well-being.

How to Find Mental Health and Alcohol Treatment Services

When you struggle with alcohol addiction and mental health symptoms, the best way to achieve and maintain lasting sobriety is to choose a New Jersey treatment program like Relevance Recovery, where dual diagnosis treatment is available. In a New Jersey dual diagnosis rehab program, your treatment team will work with you to design a plan that addresses all areas of your physical and psychological health.

As part of a comprehensive, evidence-based therapy program, you will learn how to identify, examine and then change the thoughts and behaviors that lead to harmful, such as using alcohol to self-medicate. Your treatment team at Relevance Recovery will also help you learn more about triggers and how to manage triggering situations or people without using alcohol. Learning and practicing new, healthy, and safer coping tools is a vital step on your journey to lasting recovery.

Contact us today for more information about our programs if you would like to learn more about dual diagnosis treatment and how our experienced, compassionate team at Relevance Recovery can help you find freedom from alcohol and mental health symptoms.

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