There’s a famous line in the legendary cartoon series ‘The Simpsons’ where Homer’s friend and drinking buddy Lenny says: “Nothing like a depressant to chase the blues away!”
There have been numerous studies showing the benefits of alcohol consumption. From a physical side, in moderation, some studies suggest it may:
- Reduce your risk of developing and dying of heart disease
- Reduce your risk of stroke
- Reduce your risk of diabetes
From a mental health aspect, low and moderate doses of alcohol have been shown to increase:
- Affective expression
- Conviviality (the quality of being friendly and lively)
- Pleasant and carefree feelings
However, the keywords here are ‘low’ and ‘moderate’ doses because mental health and physical issues related to alcohol consumption are associated with regular and excessive dosages. But, when is this threshold from ‘low and moderate’ to ‘regular and excessive’ crossed?
Well, the Australian National Alcohol & Drug Knowledgebase (NADK) have revealed that:
- 5% of Australians drink alcohol every day and
- 7% drink 5-6 days per week.
It’s at these levels where alcohol can have a really damaging impact on people’s physical and mental health.
How alcohol affects our brain chemistry and mental health
The brain relies on a delicate balance of chemicals and processes and, ultimately, alcohol disrupts this balance. More specifically, alcohol affects the part of your brain that controls inhibition, so after a few drinks you may feel relaxed, less anxious and more confident, but these positive feelings quickly wear off. These short-term chemical changes in your brain can later lead to more negative feelings such as anger, depression or anxiety in the long term.
Alcohol also slows down how your brain processes information, making it harder to work out true feelings and the possible consequences of our actions. Over time, alcohol uses up and reduces the number of neurotransmitters in our brains, depleting important resources needed to ward off:
For someone experiencing anxiety, a drink might help them feel more at ease initially, but these effects wear off fast. Relying on alcohol to mask anxiety could also lead to a greater reliance on it to relax. A likely side-effect of this is the increased risk of building up a tolerance to alcohol. Over time you will need to drink more alcohol to get the same feeling. And, in the medium to longer term, this pattern often leads to alcohol dependence. Furthermore, regular hangovers can also exacerbate feelings of anxiety, leading to people wanting to drink again to ‘ease’ their feelings.
For depression, drinking regularly can cause a similarly vicious cycle, although it can be difficult to separate cause and effect. This means it’s not always clear whether drinking alcohol causes a person to experience symptoms of depression. What we do know is that depression and heavy drinking have a mutually reinforcing relationship – meaning that either condition increases a person’s chances of experiencing the other – and that alcohol affects several nerve-chemical systems within our bodies, which are important in regulating our mood. Numerous studies have confirmed that drinking heavily impacts our moods while eliminating drinking can improve them.
Tips to cut down alcohol consumption
If you’re concerned about how much alcohol you’re having on a regular basis, there are numerous things you can do to help curb your consumption, including:
- Drinking soft drinks between alcoholic drinks.
- Have designated days of the week when you won’t drink.
- Switch to lower-strength or alcohol-free drinks.
- Keep a diary of your drinking and check in with it every few weeks to track how you’re doing.
- Make sure you’re not drinking on an empty stomach.
- Stay within the Australian government’s weekly consumption guidelines (10 standard drinks).
Healthier ways to relax
If you’ve been having a drink most days as your way to relax, it can be hard to break that habit. So, start by aiming to have just one small drink with your dinner in the evening. Try to resist the temptation to reach for the bottle as soon as you get home. There are also numerous other activities to do instead of drinking to help you relax, including:
- Doing some exercise. This could be a class, a run on the treadmill or simply a brisk walk.
- Practising yoga or stretching. Put on some calm music and move and stretch your body, gently and slowly. Breathe deeply while you do this.
- Listen to some calming music.
- Cooking can also be a calm and relaxing activity for some people. Try a new recipe or make time to create your favourite meal.
- Have a relaxing bath. Use essential oils, candles and bubbles to connect and stimulate all your senses.
Can I drink if I am feeling depressed or anxious?
If you struggle with depression and anxiety, or other mental health problems, but would like to drink, it’s best to keep to the Australian Government’s guidelines of no more than 10 standard drinks in a week and no more than four standard drinks on any given day.
Some people find that it’s best for them to stop drinking in order to improve their symptoms. Only you will know what works best for you, but you may wish to discuss it with your doctor or with someone at your local alcohol service.
If you need help
If you think you need to talk to someone about how much alcohol you’re drinking, help is always available. You can speak to your GP, local health service or call/chat online with one of the services below:
Alcohol and Drug Foundation Helpline: 1300 858 584 (9am – 5pm, Monday – Friday)
Converge, you can also gain access to a mental health professional. Call one of our friendly team on 1300 687 327 or visit convergeinternational.com.au.