Anxiety is both one of the myriad of causes that the consumption of alcohol produces and the reason why most people resort to drinking in the first place. It’s like a chicken and egg situation. Maybe we have a little bit of (or a great deal of) anxiety because of traumas that have happened in the past that have left us feel unworthy, undeserving and not accepted, or because we were shy and reserved; maybe we had not or were not given the opportunity as children to develop enough confidence that would have allowed us to feel like we could “survive” in a room with people we didn’t know. There are as many reasons as people on the planet. As most of us know what alcohol does is giving us an instant chemically induced feeling of relaxation but, if we keep on drinking, a burst of anxiety hours later. How does that happen I hear you say? In very simple terms, this is how.
Alcohol and Neurotransmitters
There are many neurotransmitters in our brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit messages between neurons, our brain cells. I always picture them like little tiny pac-mans with a tiny little back-pack with stuff in it. The two core ones that are like the on-off switches of the brain are GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and glutamate. The glutamate switches the brain on (wakey wakey) and GABA turns it off (sleepy sleepy). They are like two best friends who compensate each other, you need both to have a balanced system so when one is released the other is too.
The feeling of relaxation is caused by alcohol releasing more GABA, which has a calming effect. Valium does the same. This is the reason our exhibitions are lowered and we feel like we can be more sociable and fearless. But if you drink too much, the amount of GABA released turns off your pre-frontal cortex, which is the executive centre of your brain that allows you to make sensible decisions. This is also why after a couple of drinks it is very likely to keep on drinking, because that rational part of the brain goes off-line. The more your drink, the more GABA is released, the more your brain becomes incapacitated to work properly affecting the part connected to language and motor problems (i.e. slurring, falling off) and if you drink A LOT, your brain might turn off completely and that’s when you can stop breathing (alcohol poisoning). At the same time, the alcohol starts to block the glutamate receptors, which is what keeps you awake and alert, because the brain always seeks to restore balance. A process called homeostasis.
The anxiety caused by alcohol is so established that it has gained its own special nickname over the years. It is by far the most common mental health issue associated with drinking. So, what brings that up? As I mentioned before, when you start to drink, you brain releases more GABA (sleepy sleepy) and decreases the activity of glutamate (wakey wakey). Also, the more ingrained your habit is, the more your brain will slowly stop producing GABA – even when you are not drinking – because it knows that it’s supplied by the alcohol. As the brain always seeks to achieve homeostasis, it will increase of glutamate, because it does all it can to keep you alive. When you wake up in the morning after a heavy night, while the alcohol is wearing off and slowly leaving your system, you are left with that huge amount of glutamate which it had previously activate, and that’s what creates your anxiety. It’s like a seesaw with an elephant on one side and a squirrel on the other. This causes anxiety on its own and, of course, it piles up on the anxiety that you already have and you were drinking to cope with, and, as a cherry on the cake, on the anxiety you might feel because of something embarrassing you might have said or done, or something you don’t remember you have because of another phenomenon called black-out.
I have found that knowing how alcohol works makes a huge difference in the process of contemplating consuming alcohol, moderating or stopping altogether. Personally, the reason I like it is because it is objective, it’s a chemical reaction in our brain and it happens to everybody. It’s like the difference between knowing someone and living with them, and discovering their true colours.