- Drinking alcohol can lead to changes in brain chemistry and the release of brain and body hormones.
- As a result, you might notice unwanted changes in your emotions and mood, mental health, or sleep.
- If you’re having trouble quitting or cutting back on alcohol, a mental health professional can help.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
It’s not uncommon to use alcohol as a way to ease tension or nerves or help lower inhibitions. However, alcohol’s relaxing effects are only momentary.
Long-term, heavy drinking — more than eight drinks per week for women and more than 15 per week for men — can negatively affect your mood and mental health and is linked to depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.
That’s because alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the messages transmitted between your body and brain, says Joseph Volpicelli, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of the Volpicelli Center addiction recovery program.
Here are five ways that drinking too much alcohol can affect your long-term mental and emotional well-being.
The more a person drinks, the greater their likelihood of developing depression. In fact, alcohol dependency and depression share many of the same risk factors and symptoms — which makes sense, since alcohol is a depressant.
These are a few different ways that alcohol affects the brain and can lead to depressive symptoms:
- Serotonin reduction: Alcohol reduces the amount of serotonin produced in your brain. Serotonin is a chemical messenger that plays a key role in mood regulation, so by disrupting its natural production, alcohol can cause an imbalance that may lead to depression, says Nathan Brandon, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice.
- Dopamine suppression: Drinking heavily can eventually lead to less production of dopamine, a brain chemical involved in feelings of pleasure and motivation. As a result, you might begin to feel sad or low-spirited.
- Norepinephrine system impairment: Alcohol impairs the norepinephrine system, which plays a role in alertness and energy, so it can make you feel generally listless and lethargic, says Brandon.
Some people drink alcohol to feel more relaxed and ease anxiety. However, this may actually worsen your anxiety and could lead to alcohol dependence.
It’s true that alcohol can, in fact, help calm feelings of anxiety. But once you stop drinking, that anxiety is almost certainly going to return.
A 2019 study found highly shy people experienced reduced anxiety while drinking, but their anxiety increased the day after a night of drinking.
Here’s why this might happen: Alcohol prompts the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger that slows down and blocks certain nerve signals in the brain, resulting in a calming effect, says Volpicelli.
When you stop drinking, though, that influx of GABA goes away and your brain is flooded with an overabundance of the neurochemical glutamate, which can trigger anxiety, says Volpicelli.
Moreover, drinking alcohol to cope with anxiety and depression might actually worsen these issues over time, says Brandon.
For example, if you have an anxiety disorder and find that drinking alcohol triggers a panic attack, you could end up drinking more to deal with those feelings of panic and fear, thus perpetuating a cycle that’s difficult to break and risks alcohol dependence.
3. Sleep problems
A common misconception is that because alcohol is a depressant, it will help you sleep. Initially, alcohol may promote feelings of relaxation that help you feel drowsy and fall asleep faster.
However, as alcohol metabolizes in your blood throughout the night, it can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle and prevent you from getting adequate REM sleep, says Volpicelli.
Not getting enough REM sleep can negatively impact emotions, thoughts and concentration, and even physical health. It can also cause you to feel tired or fatigued the next day — which may make other alcohol-abuse-related issues like depression and anxiety even worse.
“A good night’s sleep is important for everyone but particularly for people who struggle with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety,” says Volpicelli. “Poor sleep quality can exacerbate existing mental health issues.”
4. Difficulty regulating emotions
The prefrontal cortex in your brain plays a crucial part in social behavior, decision-making, and emotion regulation. Research suggests that alcohol can disrupt normal activity in the prefrontal cortex, which Brandon says may make it difficult to control emotions.
For example, in one small 2015 study of people in an inpatient alcohol treatment program, longer episodes of heavy drinking were associated with more problems identifying and regulating emotions, which then caused more severe depressive symptoms that led to higher rates of drinking.
In short, the more often and more heavily you drink, the more difficult you may find it to regulate your emotions over time.
5. Alcohol use disorder
People living with alcohol use disorder (AUD) typically find it difficult to control their alcohol use or stop drinking when they try. This mental health condition can lead to ongoing physical and mental health symptoms, along with unwanted consequences at work, school, or in your personal relationships.
It’s common to experience co-occurring mental health disorders, especially depression and anxiety, in tandem with AUD, says Volpicelli.
Here are some signs of AUD, according to Volpicelli and Brandon:
- Missing work, school, or other obligations due to alcohol use
- Needing more and more alcohol to experience the same effects
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, such as irritability, mood swings, insomnia, headaches, and hand tremors
- Difficulty cutting down on consumption or controlling the amount of alcohol consumed
As a person develops a tolerance to alcohol and needs to drink more to feel the effects, their hangovers and withdrawal symptoms typically become more severe, says Volpicelli.
Am I drinking too much?
Your drinking habits may be causing mental health symptoms, says Brandon, if you experience any of the following:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased social withdrawal
- Lack of motivation to engage in your usual activities and hobbies
- Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
To assess how alcohol is affecting your mood and mental health, Brandon recommends asking yourself the following questions:
- Am I using alcohol to help me cope with stress or avoid difficult feelings?
- Do I feel that I “need” alcohol to have fun on a night out?
- Am I uncomfortable when I don’t drink?
- Has alcohol caused problems in my relationships with friends, family, partners, or coworkers?
How to stop drinking so much
According to Volpicelli and Brandon, participating in a sober-curious challenge — like “Dry January,” which involves taking a break from alcohol for the first month of the year — may help you gain insight into how your mood, energy, and overall mental health improves when you’re not drinking.
Rather than going cold turkey, you can also try gradually cutting back on your alcohol intake each week until you reach what’s considered a moderate amount, says Volpicelli: No more than seven drinks per week for women and fourteen drinks per week for men.
When to reach out for help
If you’re having trouble stopping or reducing your drinking, Volpicelli suggests talking with your doctor about getting support from a mental health counselor or alcohol treatment program.
You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) who can refer you to nearby support groups and organizations.
Signs it may be time to consider seeking help for mental health or alcohol-related symptoms, according to Brandon:
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Decreased productivity at work, school, or home
- Drinking in the morning to cope with a hangover or mental health symptoms
- Experiencing gaps in memory, or “blackouts“
- Having strong cravings for alcohol
- Spending considerable time and money obtaining and drinking alcohol
- Intense mood shifts after a day of heavy drinking
A therapist or other treatment professional can offer support with identifying and exploring triggers and reasons for drinking and help you find a treatment approach that works for you.
Alcohol can have plenty of long- and short-term effects on your mood and mental health. The more often or heavily you drink, the higher chance you have of experiencing depression, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and trouble regulating your emotions.
Drinking more to deal with these symptoms could, in some cases, play a part in the development of an alcohol use disorder, which can have even more of an impact on your health, relationships, and overall well-being.
If you suspect that alcohol could be contributing to or worsening mood or mental health symptoms, reach out to a therapist, counselor, or other healthcare professional. They can help develop a personalized treatment plan that’s right for you.