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Coronavirus, alcohol and your mental health

3rd Apr 2020

Coronavirus and the lockdown period has created a stressful and uncertain time for many, and a drink can seem like the answer to calm feelings of anxiety. But drinking alcohol can actually make things worse. We've put together the following information about how alcohol affects your mental health.

You can also check out our advice around:

Relaxing without alcohol

Isolation: cutting down your drinking 

Parents: Mind your drinking during lockdown

Alcohol is a depressant

Regularly drinking more than the recommended guidelines can make anxiety worse. That’s because alcohol is a depressant. It slows down the brain and processes in the central nervous system.  Alcohol can interfere with what our brains need to do for good mental health, so in the long-term, it can contribute to negative feelings and make anxiety harder to deal with.

Relying on alcohol when you’re anxious could make you reliant on it to relax

Alcohol can help some people feel more at ease in certain situations, but these feelings are short-lived. Alcohol releases chemicals in the brain that block anxiety. But our brain likes to be in balance. So after drinking, it reduces the amount of these chemicals to try to get back into pre-drinking balance, increasing feelings of anxiety. If you rely on alcohol to mask anxiety, you may find you become reliant on it to relax. A likely side effect is that the more you drink, the greater your tolerance for alcohol will be. This means that over time you would need to drink more alcohol to get the same feeling, and in the medium to longer term this pattern of drinking often leads to alcohol dependence.

Alcohol affects your immune system

Alcohol affects your ability to fight disease. Alcohol impacts the immune system, increasing the risk of illness and infections. Although COVID-19 is too new for us to know its exact interaction with alcohol, we know from other virus outbreaks that drinking affects how your immune system works, making us more susceptible to virus infection.

‘Hangxiety’ can be as common as a headache or an upset stomach if you have a hangover

More commonly known hangover symptoms include headaches and upset stomachs, but many people have feelings of anxiety too – this is sometimes known colloquially as ‘hangxiety’. The morning after drinking, you may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms which can be psychological, such as feeling depressed or anxious. For some people, these feelings of heightened anxiety or agitation may be barely noticeable. But if anxiety is already an issue for you, the morning after can make your anxiety worse.

Drinking disturbs your sleep

Several sleepless nights have an impact on our day-to-day mental health, for example, on our mood, concentration and decision-making. And while alcohol might help some people nod off, even a couple of drinks can affect the quality of our sleep. If you're regularly drinking more than the low risk drinking guidelines, you may find you wake up the next day feeling like you haven't had much rest at all. That's because a heavy drinking session means more time in deep sleep and less time than usual in the important Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, which is an important restorative stage of sleep our bodies need.