At some point in our lives we can all say that we have experienced some level of anxiety; whether it is a daily struggle or a rare occurrence, we have all felt that gut-wrenching feeling of doom. However, what differentiates us from one another are the ways we, as individuals, learn to cope with the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety. What is your response to anxiety – flight or fight? It is not so far-fetched that stress and anxiety are widely believed to contribute towards the use of alcohol. The symptoms of anxiety – feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, chest pain, etc. – may become too much to handle and alcohol is thought to alleviate these feelings. While this theory may make sense, we are left wondering what causes what? Is it the anxiety that induces the alcohol abuse or the alcohol abuse that causes the anxiety? Although past research has produced inconsistent findings regarding the relationship between anxiety and alcoholism, a new study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, may shed new light on this question. What does this mean for you, and how can you reduce your risk of developing alcohol dependency and similar substance abuse disorders?
Is Anxiety a Predictor of Alcoholism?
The new study was designed to study the effects of anxiety, sensitivity to anxiety, and stress on a group of 87 subjects (17 women and 70 men) all of whom met certain criteria related to alcohol use disorders. The researchers examined how differences in self-reported levels of anxiety, anxiety sensitivity, and perceived stress impact alcohol craving during early withdrawal, and alcohol craving and stress reactivity as well as the frequency and intensity of drinking. Of the 87 subjects, a subset of 30 subjects were admitted to a medical facility to ensure alcohol abstinence for one week. During this week, the data collected included assessing alcohol cravings among the subject twice daily. On day 4 of the week, the subjects participated in a public speaking and math challenge, before and after which researchers collected measurements of cortisol, which is a hormone associated with higher levels of stress. Findings suggest that anxiety is in fact closely linked to alcohol cravings and anxiety is actually a bigger predictor for alcohol use than stress. During the study, both anxiety and anxiety sensitivity were shown to be directly linked to more alcohol cravings. Essentially, subjects who had higher levels of anxiety sensitivity were also more likely to drink heavily and those individuals were also more likely to score higher on clinical measures of alcohol addiction.
Anxiety, Anxiety Sensitivity, and Stress
The study also highlighted that while many alcohol studies often use the terms anxiety, anxiety sensitivity, and stress interchangeably, this study showed the importance of differentiating among these terms as they each have different relationships with and effects related to drinking, craving, and stress reactivity among individuals with alcohol use disorders.
Anxiety is generally defined as an emotion characterized by intense feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes. There are many subcategories of anxiety, such as panic disorder and social disorders. There are two main treatments for anxiety disorders – psychotherapy and medications.
Anxiety sensitivity is defined as the fears of anxiety-related sensations. It can be measured by the Anxiety Sensitivity Index and it is found that those with panic disorder have especially elevated anxiety sensitivity levels. Short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment often reduces anxiety sensitivity in panic patients. Medication, such as Imipramine is also used to decreases anxiety sensitivity.
Stress is generally defined in a medical context as a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension – such factors can be external (i.e., caused by ones environmental, social situations, work, etc.) or internal (i.e., caused by illness, or from a medical procedure). Stress can also cause or contribute to the development of medical conditions such as depression and anxiety. While the above definitions may seem similar in comparison, the ways in which they related to alcohol use disorders differ. Based on the findings of the study, it appears that reducing anxiety may therefore reduce your alcohol cravings or susceptibility to alcoholism and forming an alcohol abuse disorder.
How to Reduce Your Anxiety
If you or a loved one believe you are struggling with anxiety it is important to seek professional medical consultation to be properly evaluated and diagnosed. Some common methods used by individuals to decrease levels of anxiety are listed below.
- Exercise regularly. One of the most important things you can do for your body and mind and one of the leading recommendations by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), to relieve anxiety is to exercise. If possible exercise on a daily basis. You will almost immediately notice fewer anxiety related symptoms. Believe it or not, exercising for just 10 minutes a day is enough to cause your body to produce lasting changes on the elevation of mood and reduce symptoms caused by anxiety. Come on, take the 10 minutes and change your life.
- Eat healthier meals. Not only is eating healthy good for losing weight or other positive health benefits but did you know that the types of foods you eat actually have a significant impact on the neurotransmitters activated in your brain? As it relates to anxiety, foods that contain sugars and fats can give you an immediate rush of serotonin and heighten anxiety. Try to choose healthy foods such as foods that are high in fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as fruits and vegetables. Eating more balanced meals on a regular basis and making healthier choices will undoubtedly assist in decreasing your anxiety.
- Limit caffeine intake. Avoid caffeine whenever you can as caffeine can contribute to anxiety related symptoms, such as racing heart, panic attacks and insomnia. Try it. Something as simple as cutting out a cup of coffee may make the difference you need to change overall quality of life.
- Get enough sleep every night. While one of the many symptoms of anxiety is insomnia or the inability to sleep, getting enough sleep is extremely important for the processing and regulation of emotions. However, some of the items noted above – avoiding caffeine, regular exercise and eating healthy will all assist in not only reducing your anxiety, but it will also increase your ability to sleep. These strategies when combined and practiced daily can do wonders for your mental health.
- Practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the practice keeping your mind’s attention on the present and controlling it from thinking about past or future concerns, all while sitting comfortably and focusing on your breathing. Findings have suggested that this type of meditation can help “ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.” Isn’t that what we all want? A simple way to clear your mind and manage anxiety symptoms. It’s worth a try. You are worth it.
- Talk to someone you trust. You are not alone. We are never alone. If you keep all of this inside it may feel like you are alone, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who are experiences symptoms similar to you. And sometimes, talking to someone you trust, such as a friend or relative, could be all you need to reduce your anxious feelings. Although this may seem simple and you can’t see how telling someone your business will help (in fact you may feel more anxious about it), the fact is regular socialization is proven to lead to better mental health and reduce the anxiety related symptoms you may be facing.
- Limit alcohol intake. Ok you had to know this one was going to be on the list. While the recent study discussed above indicates that anxiety is a predictor of alcoholism – that does not mean you are doomed. Avoiding alcohol is a no-brainer. We know it is used as a way to cope with the tension of stress, which is related to anxiety, but drinking is only going to make it worse and it will make you more susceptible to dependency. Alcohol in no way shape or form helps you recover or reduce your systems of anxiety. There are so many other options.
- Talk to a doctor. Maybe it is time to sit down with a therapist and talk about what you are feeling. Professionals are here to help us when we can’t find ways to help ourselves. They are an invaluable resource.
While it may seem like there is no way to completely eliminate your anxiety, these strategies (which are just some of many) can truly help you limit the effects of anxiety on your health and susceptibility to substance abuse. It is easy to simply say if you have anxiety, avoid alcohol. That is not the goal. The goal is to learn to live and lead a happier and healthier life free of anxiety so the possibility of substance abuse does not become a factor.
While the findings of this study are important, it is by no means an absolute “death sentence” – many many people struggle with anxiety and those people do not necessarily become alcoholics. As has always been the case, this study shows us the importance of paying close attention to the health of our bodies and minds. And most importantly, keeping our anxiety levels down by practicing health lifestyle changes. Should you already be struggling with alcohol abuse and are ready to get help don’t hesitate to call us at Apex Recovery. While the methods recommended above may not be enough for you at this time, they could be a contributing factor for your recovery. For more information, visit Apex Rehab for anxiety and depression guidance. It is never too late to get help.