Alcohol and mental health are closely linked. Drinking too much can affect your well-being. Some people may drink to try to relieve the symptoms of mental ill-health.
People drink for many reasons: to celebrate, socialize, commiserate or drown our sorrows. We may drink to try and change our mood: to feel more relaxed, courageous or confident. However, the effect of alcohol is only temporary. As it wears off, we often feel worse because of how alcohol withdrawal affects our brain and body.
You may feel like alcohol is your coping mechanism: a way to deal with depression, stress, anxiety or other difficult feelings. You might be nervous about what life would be like if you stopped drinking or cut back. But relying on alcohol to manage your mental well-being can become a problem in itself. There’s no shame in asking for help and exploring what a new relationship with alcohol could look like.
How alcohol affects your brain
Alcohol is a depressant, which can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in your brain and affect your feelings, thoughts and behaviour.
Alcohol affects the part of your brain that controls inhibition, so you may feel relaxed, less anxious, and more confident after a drink. But these effects quickly wear off. The chemical changes in your brain can soon lead to more negative feelings, such as anger, depression or anxiety, regardless of your mood.
Alcohol also slows down how your brain processes information, making it harder to work out what you’re really feeling and the possible consequences of your actions.
In the long-term, alcohol uses up and reduces the number of neurotransmitters in our brains, but we need a certain level to ward off anxiety and depression. This can make you want to drink more to relieve these difficult feelings – which can start a cycle of dependence.
Alcohol and mental health
Alcohol problems and mental ill health are closely linked.
Research shows that people who drink alcohol are more likely to develop mental health problems. It’s also true that people with severe mental illness are more likely to have alcohol problems. This may be because they ‘self-medicate’, meaning they drink to deal with difficult feelings or symptoms.
Alcohol and depression
Regular heavy drinking is linked to symptoms of depression. People with depression who drink alcohol often start to feel better within the first few weeks of stopping drinking. If you try this and feel better, it’s likely the alcohol was causing your depression. If your symptoms of depression continue, speak to your GP for help.
It’s generally not recommended to drink if you’re taking antidepressants. Alcohol can make depression worse and increase the side effects of some antidepressants. If you’re trying to cut down or stop drinking, research shows some antidepressants can increase your risk of relapsing. The NHS website has more information on alcohol and antidepressants.
Alcohol and anxiety
If you experience anxiety, alcohol can give you a very short-lived feeling of relaxation – but this quickly disappears. If you rely on alcohol to cover your anxiety, you may soon find yourself drinking more and more to relax. Over time, this can lead to alcohol dependence.
You may also find a hangover makes your anxiety worse.
If you use alcohol to unwind, think about other ways you can find to relax: meditation, yoga, exercise or making time for things you enjoy, for example.
Alcohol and psychosis
It’s possible to experience psychosis if you regularly drink a lot of alcohol or if you’re a heavy drinker and suddenly stop drinking.
Alcohol, suicide and self-harm
Getting help if you’re worried about your drinking
The government advises that both men and women should not regularly drink more than 14 units a week. This is the equivalent of six pints of average-strength beer or six medium glasses of wine. If you regularly drink as much of this, it’s best to spread it over three or more days.
If you’re worried about drinking or feel it’s affecting your mental health, a lot of help is available.
Contact your local AA chapter for more information and support.
Talk to your GP. It might feel difficult, but they will have heard from many other people going through something similar and will want to help you. They can check your physical health and put you in touch with local support, such as an NHS drug and alcohol service. You can also ask about other support groups or talking therapies to help you.
If you’re physically dependent on alcohol and need to stop drinking completely, stopping suddenly could be harmful. Your GP can give you advice and/or medication to help you do this safely.
If you have a severe mental health problem and a drinking problem, you may be given a ‘dual diagnosis’. If so, mental health services should be in charge of your treatment, rather than drug and alcohol services. Find out more on our drugs and mental health page.
Ways to help yourself
If you want to cut down on your drinking, avoid situations where you’re tempted to drink. If you usually socialise in the pub, think about other activities you could enjoy with friends: going to the cinema, doing an activity together or trying an evening class. Club Soda – which can help you become more mindful about drinking – has more tips on socialising sober.
Changing your habits can be tough. Talking to people you trust about your plans may help you change. They can encourage you along the way and keep you company if you’re using exercise or other tactics to help you cope.
If you or someone you know is in crisis(CAD)
If you’re in immediate danger or need urgent medical support, call 911.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call Talk Suicide Canada at 1-833-456-4566. Support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
For residents of Quebec, call 1-866-277-3553 or visit suicide.ca.
Wellness Together Canada
To connect with a mental health professional one-on-one:
- call 1-888-668-6810 or text WELLNESS to 686868 for youth
- call 1-866-585-0445 or text WELLNESS to 741741 for adults