Will Quitting Alcohol Improve My Mental Health?
It often seems as though alcohol is associated with every emotional state in today’s culture.
Alcohol rehab? You’ve seen the commercials featuring groups of sports fans joyfully imbibing. You’ve seen the posh housewife enjoying a glass of wine. You’ve also seen the Hollywood scenes where characters on the down and out surround themselves with empty bottles.
Alcohol is culturally associated with every emotion imaginable—euphoria, anger, depression symptoms, even boredom from staying at home (hence the COVID-19– related uptick in alcohol consumption).
However integrated alcohol has become into the fabric of today’s emotional life, it also plays a deeper role in mental health. Heavy alcohol use often gets connected with poorer mental health status, and it can be difficult to determine cause and effect.
Does drinking make mental health conditions worse, or do people drink more when their mental health deteriorates?
On the flip side, can quitting alcohol improve mental health?
Research is beginning to shed light on the mental benefits of quitting alcohol. Here’s what you need to know about the connection between alcohol and mental health.
How Alcohol Affects Mental Health
You are likely already aware of how heavy drinkers are more likely to experience physical health issues. The negative side effects of alcohol abuse range from liver conditions to cognitive problems and from heart problems to conditions like cancer.
Alcohol abuse can also take a toll on the immune system, making you more susceptible to developing infections like pneumonia, particularly if you are drinking heavily. However, beyond the short-term and long-term side effects that alcohol abuse has on physical health, alcohol abuse can greatly affect your mental health as well.
The Connection Between Alcohol Use Disorders and Mental Health
Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is quite common. It affects 14.5 million people in the United States alone, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Unfortunately, alcohol use disorder and certain mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, are highly correlated. People who are receiving treatment for alcohol addiction often benefit from simultaneous treatment for these co-occurring conditions.
The Connection Between Excessive Alcohol Consumption and Mental Health
While it’s apparent that alcoholism affects your mental health, you don’t have to have an alcohol use disorder to feel the negative impact of alcohol on your psychological state.
Researchers that have studied the effects of binge drinking (defined by the researchers as drinking more than eight drinks at a time for men and more than five drinks at a time for women) on a general population have found that binge drinking is associated with poorer mental health, including psychological distress and poor life satisfaction.
The researchers also found that the more hazardous the drinking, the poorer the mental health.
Alcohol Consumption and the Alcohol Withdrawal Cycle
It might not come as a surprise that alcohol abuse and excessive alcohol consumption are associated with poorer mental health. Often, if a person is feeling lousy, they may drink more to get temporary relief from their negative feelings.
Then, after a period of heavy drinking, they may feel even more depressed or anxious, believing that their only escape is another bout of drinking. This alcohol consumption cycle can be difficult to break free from.
It can be a particularly difficult cycle for people who suffer from alcohol use disorder because of the nature of alcohol withdrawal itself.
If you’ve ever stopped drinking alcohol and then started to feel symptoms such as irritability, depression, anxiety, or sleep disturbances, you may have been going through alcohol withdrawal.
These symptoms can be alleviated by drinking more alcohol, which is why abstaining from alcohol once you’ve become addicted can be so hard.
Alcohol Rehab: What Can Research Reveal About Alcohol Consumption and Mental Health?
You may have pictured your life without alcohol in the past. What did you see?
For many people, abstaining from alcohol can positively benefit their relationships, physical health, and mental health.
Researchers have evaluated the potential benefits of abstaining from alcohol, and a recent study has found that quitting alcohol may improve mental health.
Researchers supported by the University of Hong Kong were curious about the connection between alcohol consumption and mental well-being. Published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, they noted that some historical research pointed to the negative impact of moderate drinking on specific medical conditions, but also that conflicting research indicated low levels of alcohol consumption may improve mental health.
The researchers analyzed participants’ survey responses who identified their type of drinking behavior (whether abstaining entirely from alcohol or drinking heavily) and changes in their physical and mental wellness over four years. A Chinese population was used, and then the findings from that population were externally validated with a group in the US to make sure that all results were translatable despite cultural variations in drinking behaviors.
The researchers found that quitting alcohol increased the quality of life for study participants, particularly for women. The people assessed to have the overall best mental well-being scores were those who abstained from alcohol altogether. However, in women who quit drinking alcohol, levels of mental well-being approached the happiness levels of people who had a lifetime of abstaining.
What Does This Study Mean for the Average Drinker?
This study was an interesting examination of how quitting alcohol may positively affect mental health. One of the most encouraging aspects is that it seems possible that sustained abstinence, or sobriety, can make a person’s psychological state resemble that of a person who has never had alcohol in their life.
Taking Steps to Reduce Alcohol Consumption
After reviewing the positive effects of abstaining from alcohol on your mental health, as well as the physical benefits, you may be tempted to undertake a trial period of abstinence from alcohol. This may be particularly helpful if you are one of the 43.8 million US adults who experiences a mental health condition.
Even if you don’t have a mental health diagnosis, quitting alcohol can positively affect your mental well-being. Many people find that they can stop drinking alcohol by making a social pledge or by participating in a group holiday such as “Dry January.” However, if you find that the notion of stopping alcohol is problematic itself, you may be suffering from alcohol use disorder or alcoholism.
Alcohol Rehab: Here are some potential signs to look out for in an alcohol use disorder—adapted from the NIAAA. In the past 12 months, have you:
- Ended up drinking more alcohol than you intended or for an extended period?
- Wanted to cut back on your drinking or stop drinking—or tried to—but couldn’t?
- Spent a lot of time drinking or recovering from the side effects of drinking?
- Been preoccupied with thoughts of wanting to drink very badly?
- Found that you were experiencing illness, family problems, job problems, or school problems because of your drinking?
- Kept drinking even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
- Stopped or reduced other non-drinking activities to have more time available to drink?
- Had an experience you’d classify as reckless because of your drinking (like drinking and driving, walking in a dangerous area, or engaging in unsafe sexual behavior)?
- Kept drinking even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or making another health problem worse?
- Had to increase the amount that you were drinking to get the desired effect?
- Found that as the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you were having alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, or a racing heartbeat?
If any of these signs of alcohol use disorder seem familiar, it may be time to seek help. It can be intimidating to confront yourself when you think you may have a problem with alcohol.
However, finding support through an alcohol rehab program can get you in touch with all of the resources you need to quit alcohol. After quitting, local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings can help you find community support to sustain your sobriety.
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Alcohol use disorder can upend your sense of normalcy, and it also can skew your perception and affect your mental health. However, breaking free from alcoholism can help you constructively confront your mental health and make it easier to see improvement in your psychological well-being.