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Alcohol and Stress: There are Safer Ways to Cope

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Not everyone drinks in response to stress. A number of factors, including genetics, usual drinking behavior, experiences with alcohol or other drugs, and social support, help determine whether a person will drink during a stressful situation.

What is it about stress that makes some people turn to alcohol? Does alcohol help you relax, or can it make matters even worse? What else can you do to cope during a stressful situation?

Drinking in Response to Stress

Stress is not just the psychological feeling you have after you bounce a check or lose your job. Stress is a physiological response to certain stressful stimuli, including illness, injury, extreme temperatures, and fear.

When your body perceives or experiences stress, it responds by secreting hormones into your blood in an attempt to cope with the stressor. This stress response affects the way your body functions and alters your body temperature, appetite, and mood. This is one reason some people turn to alcohol after a stressful event.

In many cases, people will turn to alcohol when a stressful situation feels out of their control. Studies have also shown that stressful situations can lead to relapse among alcoholics.

People who do not have the resources—such as a social support network—to cope with stress are more likely to drink in response to a stressful situation. They use alcohol to help buffer the effects of the stressor.

Other Ways of Dealing With Stress

Alcohol is not a healthy way of dealing with stress. If you turn to alcohol often enough, your body will build up a tolerance to it. Over time, it will take more alcohol to get the same effect. Drinking to deal with stress can interfere with work, relationships, and finances. It can also lead to more serious problems, like alcoholism and health complications.

If you find yourself in a stressful situation, it is important to have coping strategies that do not involve drinking. Symptoms of stress include feeling tired, headaches, stomach aches, and having difficulty sleeping. To reduce or control the stress you are experiencing, try the following strategies:

  • Learn to say no—If you are overwhelmed with responsibilities, make a point not to take on more than you can handle.
  • Schedule quiet time—Take 10-20 minutes each day to quietly reflect. Listen to music, relax, and clear your mind of stress.
  • Take one thing at a time—If your workload seems unbearable, pick one urgent task at a time to work on. When you finish that task, choose another.
  • Exercise regularly and eat healthfully—Get 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week and focus on eating a healthy diet. Limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol, both of which can interfere with your sleep.
  • Share your feelings—Talk to a friend, family member, or healthcare professional about what is causing your stress. A friend or family member’s love, support, and guidance can help you through a stressful situation, and a professional is trained to assess levels of stress and recommend coping strategies.
  • Learn to breathe—When stressed, we frequently forget how to breathe properly. Our breaths become rapid and shallow. Learning a few breathing techniques might become a useful tool in combating stress.

In addition, you may want to take supplements. A supplement with vitamin B complex and magnesium may help to offset the effects of chronic stress on your health. Talk to your doctor first. Some supplements can interfere with medication you are already taking.

If you are feeling stressed, it may help to talk witha counselor who can advise you on other coping methods. Do not wait until things feel out of control. By that time, you may no longer know that you need help.

RESOURCES:

Mental Health America
http://www.nmha.org

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
http://www.niaaa.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Mental Health Association
http://www.ontario.cmha.ca

Mental Health Canada
http://www.mentalhealthcanada.com

References:

Co-occurring disorders. Mental Health America website. Available at: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/co-occurring-disorders. Accessed March 31, 2014.

Moderate & binge drinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at: http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking. Accessed March 31, 2014.

Sasyette M. Does drinking reduce stress? Alcohol Res Health. 1999. 23(4):250-255. Available at: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh23-4/250-255.pdf. Accessed March 31, 2014.

Stress. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. EBSCO Health Library website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary. Updated August 22, 2013. Accessed March 31, 2014.

Stress management. Help Guide website. Available at: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_management_relief_coping.htm. Updated February 2014. Accessed March 31, 2014.



Last reviewed April 2014 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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