You and alcohol

Psychological effects

Alcohol and depression
Alcohol, fear and anxiety
Alcohol and psychosis
Alcohol and aggression
Alcohol and sleep
Sleeping tips

Many people use alcohol to reduce the burden of psychological complaints such as feeling depressed, fearful or angry, but does it really help?

Alcohol and depression

Alcohol numbs what you feel, including your emotions. You don’t feel as down, and loneliness is less oppressive. The empty hours seem to pass by more quickly. Irritation is easier to cast aside. If you’re under the influence, alcohol gives relief: you just don’t care as much. In the long run, however, it doesn’t help. The bad feelings come right back once the alcohol wears off.

‘Drowning’ unpleasant feelings is not a solution. Over the long term alcohol can increase, or even cause, feelings of depression!
Alcohol is a notorious cause of depression. Often when you stop drinking, this depression will get better.

Only a small group of people still have symptoms of depression a few weeks after quitting drinking. This can be treated with medication or therapy. However, as long as you keep drinking depression cannot be effectively treated.

A final point: negative feelings – having a rotten day, irritations, bad news, low energy, feeling alone - are part of life. If you stop drinking, you’ll notice it’s easier to get over these things, put them into perspective and find the courage to look for positive experiences.

Alcohol, fear and anxiety

Feeling fearful can be very useful; it’s a natural response to a threatening situation. It keeps you on your toes and protects you. However, sometimes the fear gets too powerful and starts to run your life. You may panic or you may become afraid to go out of doors.

Drinking alcohol may have become a means of dealing with your fear. You dare to do more under the influence, since it depresses your feelings of fear. However, it’s only treating the symptom. After a while, you’ll notice that you need more and more alcohol to get the desired effect.

If you really want to make a change and learn to deal with your fear, you may need to change your relationship to alcohol so that you no longer rely on it to deal with anxiety.

Repeated exposure to feared situations along with thought monitoring and challenging are the most effective ways of reducing or eliminating most anxiety states. Your GP will be able to advise you and possibly refer you for psychological help with this. 

Alcohol and psychosis

Psychosis entails losing touch with reality. Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not really there) can occur and people can feel anxious or threatened. Thought processes can be disturbed; so that the person thinks about or suspects conspiracies, stalking, brainwashing or their phone being tapped.

People who have (or have had) psychotic symptoms are advised not to drink alcohol. The effects of alcohol are unpredictable and can trigger a psychotic episode. This is also true for non-prescribed drugs as well, most notably cannabis in those prone to psychosis.

Alcohol can also make people confused. If someone has drunk so much that psychotic symptoms appear, it’s called an alcohol psychosis.
After a period of heavy drinking, there is always the risk that the drinker will become confused. He or she will be restless, see things that aren’t there (such as the famous pink elephants) and pick at things such as their clothing or blankets.

A psychosis can be life-threatening and rates of suicide are high, therefore it is important to seek medical help if any of the above symptoms appear. 

Alcohol and aggression

Alcohol removes inhibitions. We develop inhibitions to keep our behaviour towards each other civilised, but under the influence of alcohol these inhibitions may no longer be present. Drinking alcohol can lead to outbursts of aggression. Alcohol plays a role in many cases of domestic violence. Perpetrators of 'violence' are often acting under the influence of alcohol.

Alcohol makes you more irritable. You may react to small annoyances with violent outbursts. Your ability to see things in perspective or not take a comment personally is impaired.

For those around you, your behaviour gets more difficult to predict, and they may keep more distance from you.
If you find that you can’t control your aggression once you’ve been drinking, it can be a good reason to change your drinking habits, not only for your own sake, but for those around you.

Alcohol and sleep

‘Have a nightcap...’

Alcohol seems to be a frequently used sedative. However, it has strings attached, since you need more and more to get the same effect. That one little drink can gradually become more and more.

Alcohol interferes with healthy sleep. The processes that go on in your brain during sleep don’t go as smoothly when you’ve drunk alcohol.

Waking and getting up is always nicer if alcohol hasn’t affected your sleep. If you’re used to going to sleep under the influence, you’ll find it’s indeed harder to go to sleep when sober. Therefore it is important to realise that your body needs time to adjust to a healthy sleep pattern after you’ve quit drinking.

There is also a great deal of individual variation within healthy sleeping patterns. Some people always lie awake for an hour before they fall asleep. Others sleep lightly and are easily woken by things like noises. If you sleep badly, relaxation exercises can help. 

Sleeping tips

Here are a few tips to help you sleep better, some of these relate to general quality of life issues and some more specifically to sleep hygeine:

  • Make sure your diary isn’t crammed too full of things to do, and that you don’t have to think of too many things at once. If this is the case you may keep on worrying about things once you’re lying in bed. Be sure to schedule some rest points in your day, times when you don’t have to do anything and can think calmly. Research shows that writing a diary about the day's events including any worries or concerns you may have helps the brain to switch off and recuperate.
  • Drink a glass of warm milk before going to bed.
  • Don’t drink caffeinated beverages (for example coffee, tea, coca cola etc) in the evenings. Some people are very sensitive to the stimulating effect of caffeine, and it’s better for them to not drink any caffeinated beverages, or not to have any after about noon.
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal right before going to bed.
  • Schedule a quiet time before you go to sleep. Listen to relaxing music or read a book.
  • Do relaxation exercises. You can find them on the Internet, in books or ask your doctor for them.
  • Don’t overstimulate your brain by, for example, playing computer games right before going to sleep.
  • Try not to watch television in the bedroom immediately before retiring.
  • Sex can have a relaxing effect.
  • Provide structure – go to bed at the same time every night if you can and get up at the same time in the morning even on days off and at weekends.
  • Engaging in sports promotes healthy sleep.
  • Don’t use the nighttimes to think about things; be strict with yourself. Shift your thoughts to relaxing ones, or just don’t think at all by practising mindfulness.
  • Don’t try to make up for lost sleep during the day. Get up early, and keep a fixed rhythm, even after a bad night.
  • Sleeping pills (sedatives) are highly addictive and should only be used in emergencies, and even then only temporarily.
  • You can find more information on the Internet using search terms like `sleep hygeine`, ‘trouble sleeping’ or ‘relaxation exercises’.