What to Know About Alcohol and Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 15, 2023
4 min read

Alcohol affects your brain, making you feel relaxed in a small amount of time. As you drink more, you become intoxicated and unsteady, and you might do or say things you normally won’t.

People with depression and anxiety might use alcohol to help ease symptoms, but excessive alcohol use can also worsen your mental health.

Sometimes people drink alcohol to help with the symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Alcohol changes the way your brain cells signal to each other, which can make you feel relaxed.

Other times people use alcohol to self-medicate. While this can feel good for a short time, this effect doesn’t last for long. The feelings of bliss wear off, and they can worsen your depression symptoms.

Some side effects of alcohol consumption include the following:

  • Worsening of mental health after the calm feeling fades
  • Hangovers including headaches and nausea and vomiting
  • Post-alcohol anxiety and/or depression

If you keep drinking a lot of alcohol, it can cause more problems and make your depression and anxiety worse over time.

If you binge drink alcohol, your depression and anxiety may also worsen. Binge drinking is when you drink a lot of alcohol in one day — more than 8 units of alcohol per day for men and more than 6 units of alcohol per day for women, with 1 unit of alcohol being equal to half a pint.

If you regularly drink alcohol, you might become dependent on or misuse alcohol. If you suddenly stop drinking when you’re dependent, you might feel sick and have worsened mental health. This is called withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms include the following:

  • Sweating
  • Shaky hands
  • Hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Trouble sleeping

You might try to drink more alcohol to get rid of these symptoms, but using alcohol to manage your mental health instead of getting help can lead to more problems.

‌Drinking alcohol excessively can also get in the way of other activities, your relationships, and your self-esteem, which can further affect your mental health.

Alcohol can make you more likely to be depressed, and being depressed can make you more likely to drink alcohol. People who have problems with alcohol are also more likely to self-harm and commit suicide.

Long-term alcohol misuse of and dependence can cause other serious health problems. These include the following:

Long-term heavy drinking can also cause permanent changes to the brain, such as problems with understanding, remembering, and thinking logically. This is sometimes called alcohol-related brain damage.

For some people, alcohol dependence can also cause social problems such as homelessness, joblessness, divorce, and domestic abuse. These can all lead to worse mental health.

If you have depression and anxiety and want to drink alcohol, there are some considerations. Generally, you should limit your intake to 14 units of alcohol in a week — this is equal to six standard glasses of wine or six pints of lager. Be sure to spread those drinks out evenly over the week and have drink-free days in between.

‌Some medications shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol as this might make you sick. Make sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist.

How do you know if you’re drinking too much? You could be misusing alcohol if you are experiencing this:

  • You feel like cutting back on how much you’re drinking
  • You feel guilty or bad about your drinking
  • You have trouble doing your work
  • You feel an urge to drink rather than choosing to drink
  • You consume more than 14 units a week
  • You wake up with shaky hands and nervousness
  • You need a drink to feel normal in the morning or get rid of a hangover

If you feel you’re drinking more than you’d like or your alcohol use is making your depression symptoms worse, there are some things you can do.

Keep track of how much you’re drinking. You may not realize how much alcohol you’re actually drinking in a week. A good first step is to keep a record of how much alcohol you drink and of when you don’t drink throughout the week.

Take note of the people you like to drink with and when. You might notice certain times of the day or being around certain people will make you feel more anxious or more depressed and want to drink more. Noticing these moments can help you make a plan for different ways to cope.

Cut out alcohol. If you don’t have alcohol dependence, you can stop drinking alcohol. Most people will feel better in a couple weeks, and the depression will get better. If you still have depression after 4 weeks of not drinking, talk to your doctor.

See your doctor. If you’re worried that you can’t stop drinking or that your depression is getting worse, talk to your doctor. They can help you with some medication or help you find a therapist.

If you have alcohol dependence, it can be unsafe to suddenly stop drinking. Talk to your doctor and work out a plan to safely lower your alcohol consumption.