For many of us, there is no better feeling than a nice cold beer or glass of wine after a long day. It helps us unwind, “switch-off” and shifts us into relaxation mode.
But alcohol changes the way your brain and body work by changing the balance of chemicals that help your brain to think, feel, create and make decisions. While ‘that drink’ may feel good in the moment, it can quickly become a crutch and make matters worse over time.
In 2016, the diagnosis or treatment of a mental health condition was higher among people drinking at risky levels for both lifetime (19%) and single occasional risk (17%) than those drinking at low-risk levels or abstaining from alcohol (14%).
Some warning signs that alcohol is affecting your mood may include:
• Poor sleep after drinking
• Feeling tired because of a hangover
• Low mood
• Experiencing anxiety in situations where you would normally feel comfortable.
Drinking heavily can also affect your relationships with your partner, family and friends. It can impact on your performance at work. These issues can also contribute to feelings of low self-worth and depression.
Often people will “have that drink at the end of the day” to try and improve their mood or mask their depression – which starts a vicious cycle.
Our brains rely on a delicate balance of chemicals and processes. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it can disrupt that balance, affecting our thoughts, feelings and actions – and sometimes our long-term mental health. This is partly down to ‘neurotransmitters’, chemicals that help to transmit signals from one nerve (or neuron) in the brain to another.
The relaxed feeling you might experience if you have an alcoholic drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol has caused in your brain. For some, a drink can help them feel more confident and less anxious. That’s because it’s starting to depress the part of the brain we associate with inhibition. But, as you drink more, more of the brain starts to be affected. It doesn’t matter what mood you’re in to start with, when high levels of alcohol are involved, instead of pleasurable effects increasing, it’s possible that a negative emotional response will take over. Alcohol can be linked to aggression – you could become angry, aggressive, anxious or depressed.
While a glass of wine after a hard day might help you relax, in the long run it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with. This is because regular, heavy drinking interferes with neurotransmitters in our brains that are needed for good mental health.
When we drink, we narrow our perception of a situation and don’t always respond to all the cues around us. If we’re prone to anxiety and notice something that could be interpreted as threatening in the environment, we’ll hone in on that and miss the other less threatening or neutral information. For example, we might focus on our partner talking to someone we’re jealous of, rather than notice all the other people they’ve been chatting to that evening.
Alcohol can make people lose their inhibitions and behave impulsively, so it can lead to actions they might not otherwise have taken – including self-harm and suicide.
According to the NHS in Scotland, more than half of people who ended up in hospital because they’d deliberately injured themselves said they’ve drunk alcohol immediately before or while doing it. 27% of men and 19% of women gave alcohol as the reason for self-harming.
Here’s four ways to help prevent alcohol affecting your mood
• Use exercise and relaxation to tackle stress instead of alcohol.
• Learn breathing techniques to try when you feel anxious.
• Talk to someone about your worries. Don’t try and mask them with alcohol.
That’s not to say alcohol can’t be enjoyed in moderation, but it’s important to always be aware of why you’re drinking. Don’t assume it will make a bad feeling go away, it’s more likely to exaggerate it.