Exploring the Connection Between Stress and Alcoholism for Stress & Alcohol Awareness Months
Some stress is normal and it is not always associated with something negative (i.e. getting married can be a stressful event, but it is also a happy, celebratory moment in a person’s life). However, if you are feeling stressed all the time and your stress is significantly affecting your emotional well-being, causing physical symptoms, impacting your ability to carry out your responsibilities, and/or you have started harmful habits such as self-medicating with drugs or alcohol to cope, then you need to seek help.
Being that this month is both Stress Awareness Month and Alcohol Awareness Month, we wanted to address the link between stress and alcoholism and options for managing stress in a healthy way.
In our post Understanding Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, we define the different types of stress and the physical and psychological impacts it can have. When stress becomes chronic or it is linked to another mental health issue, some people turn to alcohol as a way to cope.
Teen Drinking & Stress
Drinking to cope with stress can, in particular, be a problem for teens. Some may see alcohol as a means of managing the daily and ever-increasing pressures of performing well in school, living up to societal and parental expectations, and gaining validation from their peers. Alcohol can also be seen as a means of escape from stressful situations at home.
In addition, the adolescent years can be a very stressful time when teens are looking to find acceptance and sometimes that means drinking to fit in. Because alcohol decreases inhibitions, it gives young people the confidence they feel they need to gain a sense of social belonging. Once this becomes a habit for dealing with uncomfortable or unknown situations, it can lead to problem drinking long-term.
Risk Factors Linking Stress and Alcoholism
According to a report on the Link Between Stress and Alcohol by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), people with certain personality characteristics (impulsivity, novelty seeking, negative emotionality, and anxiety) are more prone to using alcohol to cope with stress. Additionally, a family history of alcoholism, having a mother who drank during pregnancy, traumatic childhood events, and/or having a pre-existing mental illness also increase your risk factor.
Free Alcohol Screenings at Carrier Clinic
If you are concerned you or someone you know may have an alcohol dependency or alcohol abuse problem, you can get screened at Carrier Clinic. We hold several Alcohol Dependency screenings each year with the next screening day on April 19.
For all 2018 screening dates and additional information, visit our post on Free Mental Health Screenings and Programs for 2018. Or you can reach out to us regarding admission by contacting us through or calling our Access Center which is available 24×7 at (800) 933-3579.
Healthy Stress Management
Spend Time with Animals
Studies on the effects of human-animal interactions have shown that spending time with animals is related to a reduction in stress levels and has many other mental and physical health benefits such as lower heart rate and blood pressure.
These studies provide direct evidence that interaction with a friendly companion animal, in particular a dog, positively affects endocrine responses as indicated by changes in the levels of cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, suggesting an attenuation of stress responses via HAI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3408111/
At Carrier Clinic, we understand the importance of alternative therapies and continually see the positive impact animal-assisted therapy has on our patients’ recoveries.
Carrier Clinic has been home to animal therapy since 2006 when the Equine Assisted Psychotherapy program was first introduced. Similar to pet therapy, Equine Assisted Therapy gives patients the opportunity to identify and work through various feelings that can surface while spending time around horses. Sessions are conducted with trained clinical staff and a horse expert, as every individual and group responds differently to the varying levels of feelings and reactions which often occur as metaphors to real life situations.
In November 2016 the NJ mental health and addiction facility expanded on the program by building a barn (the “I am Freed” Barn) to house even more animals and serve all patients (originally the program only served the teen population of the East Mountain Youth Lodge). In December 2017 two horses, two miniature donkeys, and two goats were added to the program.
Aside from the obvious physical benefits, regular exercise can also help reduce stress. Exercise releases endorphins which combat pain and stress. Endorphins trigger a feeling of euphoria or well-being. That sense of well-being is very powerful in promoting good mental health and managing stress. It can help you feel more motivated and confident and in turn more able to take on life’s challenges. Stress can also cause tense muscles and other physical symptoms which can help be alleviated through exercise.
Get Your Zzz’s
Getting enough sleep, as well as quality sleep, is important to combating stress. Many people who suffer from chronic stress lack adequate quality sleep because they spend much of their night lying awake or they wake up frequently throughout the night, plagued by stressful thoughts. Alcohol consumption compounds this problem because it can cause delta and alpha waves to occur together (impeding restorative sleep), interrupts your circadian rhythm, and prevents REM sleep. So while drinking alcohol may give you what you want in the short-term–to fall asleep quicker–the quality of your sleep suffers.
Instead, try to implement healthy habits for better sleep that will cause you to feel more restored when you wake up each day. This could include going to bed at a regular time each night, avoiding electronic screens right before and while in bed, partaking in relaxing activities before bed (nothing intense like exercising), and avoiding caffeine and alcohol.
If troubling thoughts persist, especially if you are used to relying on distractions like leaving the tv on while you sleep or you have become accustomed to drinking to fall asleep, you can try channeling your thoughts through journaling. Simply write and get it all your thoughts and feelings out. This exercise is intended to clear your mind, not problem solve. Try to maintain a realistic picture of the day’s events–most days are not all failures or all successes. Redirect your thoughts to the moments that were positive in your day, even if they feel like small things. You can also try focusing on your breathing or do progressive muscle relaxation, which involves focusing on one group of muscles at a time and tensing those muscles as you inhale and relaxing them as you release your breath.
Reach out for Social Support
Whether it be talking to a family member, friend, or a mental health professional, talking to someone you trust about what you’re going through can be a huge help when stress becomes overwhelming and there seems to be no way out. Know that you are not alone, and lean on those closest to you for support and guidance.
Help for Alcohol Dependence
If your stress is fueling an alcohol problem, seeking help is critical. There are support groups and programs that can help including Alcoholics Anonymous, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, Women for Sobriety, and LifeRing.
If you are looking for alcohol detox and rehab, our Alcohol Addiction Treatment Program can help you recover from an alcohol use disorder in a medically-monitored, safe, and caring environment.