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Alcohol and Mental Health: What You Need To Know

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It’s essential to understand the relationship between alcohol and mental health. Whether you would like to support a loved one who is managing alcohol addiction or want to look at how alcohol and mental health are involved in your own life, learning how alcohol can affect the mind and body can be very useful.

Here is Native’s guide to alcohol and mental health that can help you understand how the two influence each other and manage their relationship in your life and their impact on your overall wellness.

Alcohol’s Influence on the Brain

The first thing you need to know about alcohol and mental health is what alcohol actually does in the body. When you consider the effects of alcohol on the body, you might think of slurred speech or impaired decision-making. What exactly is alcohol doing in the brain that causes these and other effects on both the mind and behavior?

In high school health class, you might have learned that alcohol is a “depressant.” This means that it decreases (or ‘depresses’) the normal firing patterns of the neurons in the central nervous system. Neurons regularly fire to communicate with one another and the body and pass important information along, but alcohol interrupts this communication process.

Once you drink alcohol, it reaches the brain within 5 minutes and influences the body in around 10 minutes. Alcohol can affect many parts of the brain, and its side effects can be traced to specific brain areas. For example, alcohol’s effect on the occipital lobe (which helps the body process visual information) can lead to blurred vision. In the frontal lobe, which deals with higher-level cognitive functions, alcohol can disrupt judgment, decision-making and control.

Short and Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Use

Having a glass of wine every now and then or drinking alcohol infrequently is unlikely to harm your health, but long-term and excessive alcohol use can be detrimental to the mind and body. Alcohol use can have both short and long-term effects on well-being.

There is a wide range of side effects of alcohol use that can range from mild to dangerous in the short term. The extent and severity of symptoms felt depend on the quantity of alcohol and the length of time in which it is consumed, and other factors such as an individual’s weight and level of tolerance to alcohol. Short-term side effects might include initial feelings of relaxation or giddiness, followed by signs of intoxication such as:

  • Slurred Speech
  • Difficulty Walking
  • Impaired Judgment
  • Sleepiness
  • Impaired Sensation and Perception

When too much alcohol is consumed, alcohol toxicity or poisoning can occur, which can be life-threatening. Some of the more serious short-term side effects of alcohol use include vomiting, loss of consciousness, memory loss, trouble breathing and coma.

Alcohol can have various effects on the body immediately after it’s consumed, but it can also have a lasting and long-term influence on health when abused. Long-term overconsumption of alcohol is linked to the development of many medical conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, liver cancer, nerve damage and permanent damage to the brain. Working towards managing alcohol addiction is essential to prevent these long-term effects.

Alcohol and Mental Health

Alcohol can affect how both the brain and the body function, but what exactly is the relationship between alcohol and mental wellness? The interaction between alcohol and mental health can be complex, and the two can influence one another. Mental health struggles can exacerbate alcohol use and vice versa.

For example, someone with anxiety might rely on alcohol to feel relaxed in social situations. Individuals who have depression or other mental health issues also sometimes try to “self-medicate” with alcohol, with the goal of temporarily numbing emotions or other emotional difficulties.

The temporary sensations of relaxation or decreased negative feelings from alcohol don’t last, which can lead to individuals drinking more and more to try to regain those sensations of relief or dulled emotions. Over time, these habits can develop into unhealthy alcohol addiction and take a further toll on pre-existing mental health conditions.

One difficulty faced in managing alcohol addiction is that alcohol abuse can cause poor mental health, and withdrawal from alcohol can cause anxiety or depression. On the other hand, someone who abuses alcohol could develop depression due to alcohol overuse. Individuals dealing with managing alcohol addiction must have professional support to deal with the mental health challenges related to alcohol use and navigate the processes of withdrawal and recovery.

Feelings of low self-esteem or stress can also trigger alcohol use. In many instances, alcohol becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism that worsens mental health conditions and the difficulties one faces. When an individual develops a dependency on alcohol to deal with struggles, alcohol use covers up the existing problems instead of supporting the process of working through them.

Mental health professionals can help develop coping mechanisms that address underlying feelings and issues in healthy and constructive ways that can support recovery.

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Tips for Managing Alcohol and Mental Health

It’s important to recognize when alcohol is negatively impacting your mental health. Here are some tips to help manage the relationship between alcohol and mental health in your life or to consider helping others around you who might be struggling with alcohol and mental health:

  • Pay Attention to Your Body
  • Keep a Journal
  • Try Alternative Coping Mechanisms
  • Reach Out to a Professional

Pay Attention to Your Body

Even if you aren’t currently managing alcohol addiction, it’s essential to pay attention to how alcohol makes your body (and your mind) feel. Consider what side effects you experience from alcohol and evaluate whether it should be a part of your life moving forward. If your health is suffering from alcohol use, take steps to reduce or eliminate it from your lifestyle to improve your overall well-being.

Keep a Journal

If you’re unsure if alcohol is a problem for your mental health or if you want a convenient way to track your alcohol use, consider keeping a journal where you log your drinking habits and the side effects you experience afterward.

This will create a clearer picture of the role drinking plays in your life and can be a helpful resource when seeking professional health or managing alcohol abuse or addiction. A journal can also lend insight into how alcohol affects your mental health. For example, you might notice that times of alcohol use coincide with increases in mental health symptoms such as depression or anxiety.

Try Alternative Coping Mechanisms

Alcohol can become an unhealthy coping mechanism when negative feelings such as stress, anxiety or sadness arise. To prevent this from happening or combat the use of alcohol to cope, it’s important to try out other coping mechanisms or relaxing activities that can have a healthy impact on mental health. Exercise such as jogging, swimming, yoga or tai chi can help relieve stress. Other techniques to help achieve relaxation include meditation, mindfulness strategies and starting a new hobby such as gardening or cooking.

Reach Out to a Professional

If you would like to discuss your relationship with alcohol and mental health or develop strategies for managing alcohol abuse, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. Mental health providers can help you understand how alcohol is influencing your mental health and work through steps that can be taken to improve your overall wellness.

If you live in Pennsylvania and want to talk through the interaction between alcohol and mental health in your own life, the qualified professionals at Native are here to help.

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