April is both Stress Awareness Month and Alcohol Awareness Month–and it’s no accident. The connection between stress and alcoholism has long been recognized by scientists and medical experts although discoveries continue to be made. In this article, we’ll explore how stress can influence how much you drink, how drinking can affect how you respond to stress, as well as the physiological effects of both (and the role they play in the development of alcoholism). Before we can fully dive into the interconnectedness of stress and how it can influence us to drink or engage in other negative behaviors, we must first understand what it is.
What Is Stress?
Stress can be both an emotion and a physical feeling. It is a reaction to situations that are challenging or demanding, known as “stressors”, and it’s not always a bad thing. When stressed, your brain emits hormones that make you more alert, primes your muscles for action, and increases your pulse–think of the “fight or flight” response. This improves cognitive and physical performance allowing for faster reaction times, quicker movements, and better endurance.
Types of Stress
Normally, these instances are short-term and the feeling resolves itself quickly once the stressful situation is over with, this is known as acute stress. Cases where the stressor is gone but the stress remains is known as anxiety, another negative feeling commonly associated with alcohol and drug abuse. The most dangerous of all, however, is chronic stress. This is where your body is constantly alert and on edge and can be caused by an ongoing stressor (i.e. feel stuck in a bad relationship or facing financial hardship). It is this type of stress where the potential to abuse drugs – like alcohol – in an effort to self-medicate is greatest.
Factors That Affect The Correlation Between Stress & Alcoholism
Numerous studies have found a positive correlation between stress and alcohol consumption. However, the relationship is far more nuanced than most realize. Personality plays a major role. How easily you get stressed and can overcome it are telling determinants of your likelihood to 1) turn to an unhealthy coping mechanism and 2) developing an unhealthy reliance on it.
Studies have shown that individuals who are optimistic and focus on the positive tend to handle stress better. Not only that, but they are also naturally less inclined to developing related disorders such as alcoholism. Ultimately, how you handle stress is the strongest indicator of your likelihood to turn to alcohol as well as developing an addiction. Other factors that can increase the likelihood that someone will turn to alcohol to cope with stressful situations and develop alcohol use disorder are:
- Individuals with a history of AUD
- Involvement in a natural disaster or another sort of catastrophic event
- Childhood trauma or mistreatment
- Drinking alcohol at an early age
- Being a victim of assault (females)
- Job loss (primarily in males)
A Counterproductive Coping Mechanism
It’s not uncommon to hear people blowing off steam with a glass of wine or a cold pint after a rough day. There is some logic to that as in the short-term, alcohol consumption can generate pleasurable effects and lessen feelings of pain. However, stress’s effects on the body continue despite how relaxed you might feel at the moment. The effects of stress can overlap with the effects of drinking alcohol which can perpetuate a body’s state of stress rather than providing relief. The result: the drinker can feel even worse after drinking and that’s still not the end of it.
Physically, alcohol can prevent the body from “resetting” as it would in a healthy acute stress response. This state then becomes the new normal, a process known as allostasis. The result: individuals not only suffering from ongoing physical effects of being stressed out but making them feel stressed much more easily. If alcohol is the default coping mechanism, you can see how quickly the situation can spiral. To add even more fuel to the flame, heavy drinking can alter the brain’s chemistry and result in higher levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone.
The relationship between stress and alcoholism is an apparent one, however, the effects of how quickly this relationship can become dysfunctional are less so. Both stress and alcoholism are dangerous conditions with the potential to be lethal. If you or a loved one has turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism, you are at significant risk of developing a drinking problem (or may have one already). An addiction treatment center can help untrain those compulsions and teach you healthier and more effective coping mechanisms.