Alcohol and Anxiety Can Be a Dangerous Mix

Some things go together well: summer and baseball, good books and armchairs, cookies and milk. Other things don’t pair up so successfully. For people who experience high levels of anxiety in social situations, downing wine with dinner or a couple of beers to calm the nerves could prove to be a bad match.

Comorbidities are illnesses which co-exist. Understanding what connects two conditions for patients could prove instrumental in not only treating those conditions but in the development of new preventative measures and interventions.

Anxiety Linked to Substance Abuse

In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, a Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers sought to untangle the connection between self-medication for anxiety and future instances of substance abuse. The study involved 34,653 adult Americans considered to be representative of the general population. The study was conducted over a period of three years with an initial reporting in 2001/02 and the follow-up reporting taking place in 2004/05.

Participants in the study were divided into three categories:

  1. people who did not self-medicate;
  2. those who self-medicated with alcohol; and
  3. those who self-medicated with drugs.

A significant number (13 percent) in the first sampling said they had used alcohol or drugs as a way to handle anxiety in the past year. Even more (25 percent) said that they had taken prescription medications for the same reason.

During the first sampling to establish baselines, some participants were diagnosed with substance abuse. Of those, 23.3 percent abused alcohol and 32.7 percent were diagnosed as abusers of drugs. Among the roughly 23 percent diagnosed with alcohol abuse there was a 5.7 percent to 9.9 percent comorbidity for anxiety disorder. Incidences of anxiety disorder which presented in those diagnosed with drug use disorder ranged from 8 percent to 13.5 percent.

The study results confirmed long-held expectations that those who suffer from anxiety disorders are at increased risk for substance abuse. The study results demonstrated that those with anxiety disorders who self-medicate are two to five times likelier than those that do not self-medicate to experience substance abuse problems in three years. Those who demonstrated anxiety symptoms but who were not diagnosed with the disorder at the beginning of the study experienced were more likely to be diagnosed with a social phobia by the completion of the three years if they had been self-medicating.

Alternatives to Substance Abuse

While not everyone who enjoys a glass of beer or wine at the end of a workday or work week needs to worry that they are on the road to alcoholism, everyone can read the study as a cautionary tale. Those who struggle with anxiety should avoid settling for the short-term fix that alcohol or drugs provide. Short-term solutions do not address the underlying problem and the long-term consequences of that combination are risky.

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Finding a counselor is a long-term solution with a great promise of success. Those who do not struggle with anxiety issues should also consider how often substances are being used to self-medicate in difficult situations. When anxiety is present, instead of drinking or self-medicating, consider taking a long walk, a hot bath or calling a good friend for a long phone chat. Some things work better together than others.