Anxiety, Alcohol Use, and 13 Ways to Cope With Panic (Besides Drinking)

Monday, February 09, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

Social anxiety is strongly linked to higher levels of alcohol abuse1, possibly due to the way alcohol lubricates vocal chords and actually allows nervous folks to speak in public. A little social helper to get you through meeting new friends, right? 

But anxiety is more strongly connected to alcohol dependence than alcohol abuse so those with anxiety may have a predisposition to end up addicted2. Either that or people mistake the withdrawal symptoms for anxiety which skews the data. Either way, over time, alcohol triggers worsening anxiety issues, leading to more need for more alcohol to reduce ever climbing emotional symptoms. 

Uhoh. 

There are ways to cope without the alcohol, and we’ll get to all that in a minute. But you need to understand what you’re up against.

Alcohol and Your Brain

Women metabolize alcohol differently than men, so our brains are more susceptible to damage. For instance, we are more likely to have issues with memory loss and blackouts in the short term and have more nerve damage, cirrhosis of the liver and cardiac issues all with less years of active drinking then our male counterparts4

Those smug bastards. 

Plus, anxiety and depression themselves come with changes in the nervous system, specifically neurotransmitters and threat control centers, like the amygdala. And according to psychiatrist Peter Kramer in Listening to Prozac, alcohol alters neurotransmitter function that can be persistent over time3. In those with depressive symptoms, Kramer notes that evidence of damage is usually found in areas that control serotonin and other emotion-controlling hormones, and that glial cells—the brain’s way of processing toxins—are also damaged. Other researchers have found that alcohol decreases brain size, reducing white matter and shrinking other areas of the brain, namely the ones involved in stress processing5. Alcohol also damages areas involved in nerve signaling by depleting thiamine4, (vitamin B1) a nutrient that is essential for brain health and muscle and nerve coordination5

Balls. Also…what!?

Here’s the gist: alcohol starts out as your buddy, chilling you out and letting you socialize without as much anxiety. But while you’re hanging out, he’s messing with your neurotransmitters and killing a few of them like an asshole. He’s also beating the other ones so they will not be able to repair the murdered cells (which you need to stay chilled out later on). All of this makes anxiety and depression worse. And by the time you take withdrawal into account, he’s slashing your tires so you can’t get home without him.

So alcohol usage may increase rates of anxiety and depression by altering brain chemistry, making those issues more likely in those who use. Alcohol also primes the brain to crave it in times of stress, which may lead to a cycle of inadequate repair and trouble coping. It’s a merry-go-round of bullshit. 

So what do we do about this? 

How to Cope with Anxiety (Without Alcohol)

Identify The Problem

This one seems to go without saying, but many of us go through life without getting to the root of the issue. Is there a reason that you are anxious? Were you always “high strung” or was there a trigger, such as abuse, a traumatic event or parental divorce? Are you anxious all the time or just in social situations? Are there certain things that trigger the anxiety? If you can identify what makes your anxiety worse, you will have a  better idea of what you need to work through.  

Know that Panic and Anxiety Are Normal 

Fear of another panic attack, or being worried about the anxiety itself, is a surefire way to make it worse. But anxiety is the body’s way of protecting us from danger (read more here in Anxiety Symptoms) A panic attack won’t physically hurt you. It can make you damn uncomfortable, but it won’t give you a heart attack, it won’t make you stop breathing, it won’t even make you pass out unless you hyperventilate. Which brings us to….

Deep Breathing

At the beginning of an anxiety response it is easier to calm down if you can regulate your breathing. Both heart rate and breath are automatic processes, but they are also ones we can adjust. Do that. Take a deep inhale for the count of four. Hold for a two count(of it feels right) and exhale for the count of eight, pressing all the air from your lungs at the end. Repeat until you heart rate starts slowing as well. (For more, check out Deep Breathing: You’re Doing it Wrong.) 

Find Support

Women in particular are wired to desire support during times of high anxiety, probably due to an evolutionary history when we had to band together to protect young from predators instead of running away without our kids. (More here in Tend and Befriend). When you are feeling anxious, call a friend and have them come over. Talk to someone on the phone or on the computer if you just can’t fathom speaking in your current state. Avoid isolation and embrace friendship as a way to distract yourself, normalize the process and even deepen relationships with those close to you. After all, she probably has something she’s going through as well and vulnerability is a big part of friendships (more here in Friendships and Vajazzling). 

Exercise

Not only does exercise feel good because of the endorphin release, but it purges stress hormones and helps regulate systems that contribute to anxiety responses. Plus, sometimes the best way to make you body think you outran the threat that caused the reaction is to actually run. (More here in Green Exercise.)

Embrace Physical Health

Physical health and nutrient deficiencies can be closely linked to anxiety issues. Eat healthfully, avoid processed foods and get rid of artificial sweeteners which can wreak havoc on your brain. Get tested for food alleges if you have other symptoms, as anxiety and allergy are closely related (see more in an upcoming post). Ask your doctor about a good vitamin regimen or try these. You might also like The Vitamin Cure for Alcoholism: How to Protect Against and Fight Alcoholism Using Nutrition and Vitamin Supplementation, though be advised that it usually takes some behavioral therapy outlined in Living Sober Sucks! (but living drunk sucks more) as well. 

Natural Supplements for Anxiety

Valerian Root (orally) and Lavender Oil (on the skin) have both been shown to decrease anxiety responses in the short term. Click on the names for a link to purchase if you want to try them.

Distraction

If you start to get anxious, see if you can distract yourself. Read a good book, talk with a friend, watch a movie or play a game online. If you can avoid focusing on the symptoms, you might have a better shot at letting them go. 

Write

Journaling can be an effective way to purge and process those feelings and may also provide some distraction because you’re actively doing something. (More on how effective writing can be here in CBT and Storytelling

Mindfulness/Yoga

Distraction is not for everyone. The opposite of distraction, mindfulness involves watching your thoughts and accepting them. Allow yourself to feel the anxiety without judgement. Instead of being afraid of it, watch the feelings and the thoughts as if they are going over a waterfall. Over time, mindfulness training can make a big difference in everything from anxiety, to depression to traumatic responses. And if you really want to go all out, combine mindfulness with the deep breathing and yoga for exercise. It’s a win/win/win. (More here in Mindfulness Training)

Exposure 

If you are frightened of something specific, try either cognitive or actual exposure. Be around the thing that makes you nervous. DO the thing that makes you nervous. The more experiences you have with the thing that scares you, the more likely it is that you will realize it isn’t so scary after all. (More here in Exposure Therapy.)

Change Your Thoughts

Thought replacement is a technique where you immediately replace any negative or scary thoughts with more positive ones. Reframing your self talk to be kinder can also help when dealing with anxiety because anxious folk tend to be quite hard on themselves and compassion goes a long way. For more cognitive behavioral techniques that work with anxiety, check out the links below under “Related Posts”.

Find a Therapist and Find a Meeting

Dealing with anxiety is difficult so it is important to get some help. A therapist will be able to work through cognitive behavioral techniques with you as well as refer you to a psychiatrist for medication if this is necessary. And if you’re having trouble avoiding alcohol, it might be time to make additional changes. Find new supports aside from the ones you usually drank with, avoid the bar or other places where you usually drank, toss any bottles at home in the trash (full or not) and get yourself to an AA meeting. 

It is a challange to change the way you cope with anxiety, especially if you are used to numbing it with alcohol. But over time the affects of alcohol on the brain decrease. Brain repair is awesome. 

There are tons of avenues to help you work through both of these issues, but no one needs to do it alone. Find help, and start working towards a better tomorrow today.

Related Posts: 

Citations
  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20441690 
  2. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arcr344/414-431.htm
  3. http://www.amazon.com/Listening-Prozac-Landmark-Antidepressants-Remaking/dp/0140266712
  4. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm
  5. http://journals.lww.com/jneuropath/Abstract/1998/02000/The_Neuropathology_of_Alcohol_specific_Brain.1.aspx



Topic-Relevant Resources

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Primatologist/biologist Robert Sapolsky on stress and your brain. Good stuff.

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

The Mindfulness Solution
Meditative and cognitive techniques for everyday use

Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences
Dr. Peter Levine discusses the evolved processes that make us more susceptible to traumatic experiences and offers paths toward healing.

Living Sober Sucks! (but living drunk sucks more)
Written by a psychologist and a recovering alcoholic, this book provides insight into the issue and numerous techniques to embrace sobriety outside of AA.

The Vitamin Cure for Alcoholism: How to Protect Against and Fight Alcoholism Using Nutrition and Vitamin Supplementation
Great insight into the disease side of alcoholism and ways to combat it using bodily repair techniques



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