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. Many Vietnam veterans treated for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have alcohol use disorders. Many 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. Drinking to deal with stress can interfere with work, relationships, finances, and lead to more 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, Mental Health America recommends 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.
- Meditate.—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 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 ask your doctor about taking supplements. A supplement with vitamin B complex and magnesium may help to offset the effects of chronic stress on your health.
If you are feeling stressed, it may help to talk with your doctor, who can refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or other qualified counselor for professional help. But do not wait until things feel “out of control.” By that time, you may no longer know that you need help.