Drinking Alcohol to Relax: The Big Anxious Lie

Locking the House with OCDIt takes me about ten minutes to lock down our house each night. That’s a long time to secure a small, one story bungalow. It’s kind of a problem. I get irrationally upset if my wife needs to get something out of the car in the detached garage or water the plants after I’ve set the alarm. I’m getting better, though. It used to take fifteen minutes.

 

In addition to locking the doors and checking the windows, I ensure nothing flammable is near the furnace or water heater, I confirm the stove and oven are off and I make sure no electrical cords are being crushed under the legs of the beds (a common reason for house fires – Google it while you laugh at my pain).

 

My obsessive-compulsive disorder is one of several forms of anxiety from which I suffer, and they are all remnants of 25 years of heavy drinking. How do I know alcohol is the reason I lock and recheck the front door between two and eight times an evening? There are three reasons.

 

  1. I wasn’t like this before I started drinking. Now, that was in my mid-teenage years, and I didn’t own a house or have any responsibilities, really. But paranoia or OCD are not among my many memories of my pre-drinking years. Something changed me.
  2. My anxiety is getting better as I am now well into my third year of sobriety. That includes the paranoia of the nightly lockdown. It is getting better at roughly the same pace that my ability to experience joy unrelated to alcohol is returning. My brain is healing. Lower anxiety is just one of the indicators.
  3. There is a ton of research and publication about alcohol-induced anxiety. The connection is indisputable – in my life, and in the lives of millions of other alcoholics.

 

Anxiety from Neurological Alcohol Damage

I believe the anxiety creeps into the lives of us drinkers in both neurological and behavioral ways. There is no doubt in my mind that heavy consumption of alcohol programs anxiety into our craniums. Otherwise, how do we explain waking in a panic in the wee hours of the morning in a cold sweat with a racing heart and shortness of breath. We don’t work ourselves into a frenzy. It doesn’t come on gradually as we catalog our conscious, rational concerns. One moment we are experiencing restless drunken slumber, and the next we are as awake and traumatized as if someone had poured a bucket of ice water on us.

 

This experience is an equalizer for alcoholics. It is not reserved for gutter bums or addicts with liver failure. You don’t have to reach a massive, flaming, rock bottom to wake in the middle of the night filled with terror and gasping for air. If we talked more about alcoholism – if we as a society had a better understanding of how alcohol poisons us – the 3am anxiety attack would be well known as a major symptom of disease development, and at least some of us would begin treatment. But most of us don’t know why we are so panicked, and consider it collateral damage from a stressful, responsibility-filled, adult life.

 

And we drink on.

 

It is natural to have a healthy fear of future events that are beyond our control. I worry that one of my kids will experience teen pregnancy or develop an addiction, and I am uncomfortable about the instability of the man with the nuclear codes. But I don’t lose sleep about the uncontrollable, and I certainly don’t wake in the middle of the night with a racing heart about the unknown or unlikely.

 

Anxiety of the Uncontrollable

As an active alcoholic, I drank more and more things out of my control. I began to understand that despite my best efforts to put rules around my drinking and bolster my willpower with pregame pep-talks, I really didn’t know what would happen when I cracked that first beer. The majority of the time, I kept things relatively in check and gave the appearance of drinking like a normal person. Sometimes, however, I over-drank and caused stress and heartache for my wife. The unknown – the lack of assuredness about how any drinking session would progress – put huge chunks of my life outside my control. The less I controlled, the more I worried.

 

It wasn’t as simple as my rational mind equating my drinking with my paranoia level. That isn’t how it works. But as a growing percentage of my life fell into an uncontrollable category, a growing concern emerged in my subconscious. That’s called anxiety, and I’m far from alone in my welcoming it into my life through alcohol.

 

Alcohol and Anxiety Statistics

About 18% or our adult population suffers from an anxiety disorder. Hah! I can’t be the only one getting out of bed to check the burners on the stove! There are roughly 40 million Americans worrying a little too much about something. In the U.S., 56% of adults drink alcohol regularly and 18% of adults have unhealthy levels of anxiety. There is not a provable, scientific, direct cause and effect relationship in these statistics, but as someone who has lived through and cured debilitating alcohol-induced anxiety, the fact that a lot of people drink and a lot of people have anxiety disorders is unignorably relatable.

 

I know there are other reasons for anxiety like trauma and life conditions that cause unmanageable stress. But there are also a lot of us drinking ourselves into a panic unknowingly.

 

We think alcohol relieves stress. And it might help us push our shit way down inside in the short-term. But overall, alcohol is a far greater stress and anxiety creator than it is a reliever. Oblivious, we continue to pour gasoline on the smouldering embers.

 

Infinite Connections

The correlations between drinking alcohol and unhealthy levels of anxiety are endless.

 

  • Abusing alcohol is isolating. We lie and hide our truth thus shutting people out. Isolation is research proven to cause anxiety.
  • Alcohol consumption inhibits restorative sleep. Poor sleep is a leading cause of anxiety. Thus, alcohol consumption results in anxiety.
  • Heavy drinking is a proven disruptor of marriages and other relationships. Insecurity in important relationships leads to some of the worst forms of paranoia and anxiety.

 

The connection between alcohol and anxiety is indisputable. But when someone talks about the negative effects of alcohol, especially in moderate drinkers or high-functioning alcoholics, we humans aren’t listening. We’d rather medicate anxiety with addictive narcotics or hallucinogens than address the root cause.

 

We’d rather medicate than eliminate. Medicating has become the American way.

 

It is tragically funny, really, how we’ve normalized pharmaceutical treatment of anxiety and depression as we’ve stigmatized the treatment of alcohol abuse. It’s like getting a cooler of ice and plastic bags ready before we start juggling chainsaws. There is an easier way. But we can’t hear the warnings about prevention because we are too busy managing the catastrophe.

 

You can hear. You are listening. You read all the way to the bottom of my sermon, and I appreciate your open minded quest for a better way.

 

If drinking concerns you – either your drinking or the drinking of someone you love, I offer you my free ebook, Guide to Early Sobriety. I share my experiences navigating the hardest part of alcoholism recovery, and I share more of my not-so-subtle opinions.

Guide to Early Sobriety

We are in the fight of our lives, and I’m fighting for you. It takes time, and nothing about recovery is easy. But the best anti-anxiety medication I’ve found is long-term sobriety.

 

Don’t fill society’s prescription. Peace and relaxation isn’t really waiting for you at the bottom of a bottle.

 

Untoxicated Podcast

Now featured on the Untoxicated Podcast: Ep8 – When Love Survives Addiction

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4 Comments
  • Reply
    Jay W.
    May 1, 2019 at 7:55 am

    It’s funny: alcohol holds itself out, to the abuser, as the ONLY solution to the very anxiety that alcohol, itself, creates. Dear God I wish I’d known that 15 years ago. So much anguish that I could have, at least, understood while I was enduring it.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      May 1, 2019 at 8:37 am

      Well said, Jay. I might not have quit right away, but it would have had such an impact to have understood.

  • Reply
    Brian
    May 21, 2019 at 9:57 am

    Matt, I’m really enjoying your posts. I drank for nearly the same time-frame as you – 1990 to 2018. I’m almost 5 months sober now. My initial goal was to go 1 year, as I struggled with a lot of the same questions around “Am I an alcoholic?” as many others, but the longer I go the more I think I likely will not go back. I rarely think about booze these days, and I can easily see that “just having one” while out socially will be a slippery slope to one at home while cooking, and then to a few more later in the evening to “unwind”. Anyway, this post in particular resonated with me. I think I struggled with unrecognized anxiety for years and I’m starting to suspect that alcohol had a large role in that. Keep up the good work!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      May 21, 2019 at 12:14 pm

      Thanks Brian, and congratulations on five months. Yeah, I think alcohol has a lot to do with a lot of nagging issues people deal with – even people who keep their drinking under control. One of the most important keys to my sobriety was to learn how alcohol works in our brains. What I learned was terrifying. There really is no safe amount of alcohol, and it affects the brains of “normal” drinkers and “problem” drinkers alike. Anxiety is a prime example.

      I’m glad this resonates, and I hope you keep going!

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