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Alcohol and mental health

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You may have heard people talk about how they drink to have a good time. Or perhaps you’re someone who feels you need alcohol to feel more confident. While it’s true that alcohol can improve your mood, it’s having quite the opposite effect on your mental and physical wellbeing. But does drinking cause mental illness?

A common misconception associated with alcohol is that it acts in the same way a stimulant might. Alcohol is in fact a depressant, not a stimulant, which means it depresses the central nervous system (CNS) affecting things like concentration, coordination and balance. Over time, excessive drinking alters brain chemistry, leading to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Alcohol addiction and mental health issues like depression and anxiety are referred to as co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis.

Here we will explore the link between alcohol and mental health issues and how a dual diagnosis can be treated.

How does alcohol interact with your brain?  

Alcohol interferes with several complex structures in the brain, such as the part responsible for regulating your mood and controlling your inhibitions, which is why so many people admit to

drinking to in order to feel calm.

Whenever alcohol is consumed, chemical signals (neurotransmitters) between brain cells are blocked which leads to symptoms of intoxication. The most common include slow reflexes, impulsivity, slurred speech and poor memory.

Disruption to the brain’s delicate balance of hormones and chemicals can lead to a range of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.  

How does Alcohol Affect Mental Health?

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There have been countless studies exploring the effects of alcohol on mental health.   Understanding how alcohol interacts with the brain, helps you understand its impact.

Some of the most common mental disorders associated with alcohol1 include:

  • Addiction
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder

If you find yourself drinking to excess to achieve that dopamine release, then you may be addicted to alcohol. Alcohol addiction is a mental illness, characterised by the inability to stop drink despite the consequences. Once you become physically dependent on alcohol, the brain adapts to the presence of it in your system, meaning once you stop, you will experience unpleasant physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms.

Once alcohol has damaged the brain’s dopamine receptors, nothing else seems exciting, and it becomes difficult to find joy in anything other than drinking. At this stage, the descent into depression begins. Alcohol has also been linked to suicidal ideation2 as a direct result of alcohol-induced depression.

Long-term effects of alcohol abuse on the brain  

In addition to the negative impact on vital organs such as the heart, liver and pancreas, alcohol addiction depletes the brain’s grey matter. Grey matter is the part of the brain that allows us to function normally. It controls our movements and helps us retain memories. If heavy drinking continues over a long period of time, the brain will eventually adapt to the blocked signals even once alcohol is no longer in your system. As a result, your brain continues over activating the neurotransmitters, causing potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms that can damage brain cells and affect your ability to recover.

If you’re suffering from mental illness as a result of your alcohol consumption, or you believe your loved one’s drinking habits are affecting their mental health, it’s likely you need alcohol detox as well as counselling for alcohol addiction and any co-occurring mental health issues.

Call us today for free, confidential advice and support.

Drinking & depression: a vicious cycle  

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People drink as a way of coping with reality and numbing themselves to any physical and emotional pain. However, due to the chemical changes that take place in the brain, heavy drinking only exacerbates the symptoms of depression. So why do people continue to drink, knowing that it is affecting their mental wellbeing? This behaviour can be attributed to the short-term effects of alcohol and its impact on dopamine in the brain.

Alcohol and dopamine

These short-term effects act as the crutch holding you up when things get tough, when in fact, they are contributing to your symptoms. Dopamine signals to the brain when things are good and records this behaviour so that it can be repeated. As alcohol floods your brain’s pleasure centre with dopamine, the feel-good chemical rushes through the body. Unfortunately, this feeling only lasts for a short while. Once your dopamine levels drop, feelings of anxiety and other symptoms occur. As alcohol is the only thing that can alleviate the very problem it’s creating, the cycle continues.

Treatment for alcohol addiction and mental illness  

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It’s important to note that even once the brain has underdone change as a result of alcoholism, in many cases, these changes can often be reversed with a combination of alcohol detox and psychological counselling and therapy. It can be difficult to identify whether certain psychiatric symptoms are alcohol-induced or whether they existed previously. However, alcohol–induced disorders have been known to improve on their own following a period of abstinence and therapy.

Most inpatient alcohol rehabs have the facilities to treat the addiction and any co-occurring disorders that were present before the addiction, or have developed as a result of the drinking or drug taking.

If you’re suffering with alcohol addiction and believe this is causing psychological problems, we suggest one of the following options:

  • Inpatient rehab: Inpatient rehab is considered one of the most effective addiction treatment options, especially where alcohol is involved. Alcohol withdrawal can be mentally and physically challenging, and inpatient rehab provides you with a comfortable and safe environment to begin your recovery. Inpatient clinics provide a medically managed alcohol detox should you need one.
  • Counselling: A detox should always be followed by psychological therapy or counselling. If you’re suffering from a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression, counselling can help you identify triggers and external stressors that may be contributing to your mental well-being.

If you’re unsure about which treatment path is right for you, call us today. Our team are on hand to provide treatment advice and support


1. Alcoholism and Psychiatric Disorders – National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

2. Suicidal Behavior and Alcohol Abuse – The National Library of Medicine