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Anxiety, Alcohol and Sobriety
Disclaimer: Many people suffer from anxiety disorders. They are very real, very treatable medical conditions. The intent of this post is not to speak about anxiety in terms of those medical conditions, but rather to speak about it as it relates to my experience with alcohol abuse and sobriety. If you are struggling with anxiety and think you may need help, there are excellent resources available here: Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Throughout the last few years of my drinking career, there was a huge knot of anxiety in my chest at all times. That feeling of waking up at 3 am with terrible anxiety after a night of drinking? Hangxiety? I had that. But I also had anxiety that was with me no matter what time of day it was. No matter what situation I was in, I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I always felt like IT was there, hovering over my head. Maybe “anvil” would be a better word than “shoe.”
I didn’t think about things, I worried about things. All the time. If I was home, I was worried about work. If I was at work, I was worried about home. If things were going well, I worried about when they were going to get worse. If things were going badly, I worried about what else was going to happen. I worried about absolutely everything.
Eventually, I started having full-blown anxiety attacks. They came out of nowhere and they were absolutely terrifying. There was no telling when I’d have one, or what might set it off. The only thing that seemed to calm me down was alcohol. When I drank, the anxiety came down to a manageable level. Unfortunately for me, the thing I was using to solve the problem was actually creating it. Alcohol may have sedated me in the moment, but in the long run it was causing problems with my brain chemistry that led to the anxiety I constantly felt.
I dealt with a lot of worry and anxiety while I was drinking. Now the anxiety is there, but in the background mostly. I’m much more rational in my day-to-day life, and am pretty good at halting those thoughts right when they pop up so as no not feed them any energy. They fall away quickly. It’s been only 3 weeks sober and I definitely am much more at peace these days!
As if that wasn’t bad enough, when I first started trying to get sober, I learned that quitting drinking can also cause anxiety. It definitely did in my case. I vividly remember the first time I made a serious effort at not drinking because I was pacing back and forth through my apartment like a caged animal before 24 hours had passed. I could not sit still. I couldn’t focus on anything. My anxiety was absolutely through the roof. It was terrible, and I couldn’t see the benefit of staying sober if it meant I had to feel that way. I drank again the next morning.
My first week of my last quit, was awful…. I couldn’t believe how anxious I felt ALL the time… but I slowly learned how to manage it. Now over a year sober, anxiety ridden moments or days show up and it’s like meeting an old friend, one whom I don’t like very much, but know very well… and I take a deep breathe and sometimes she stays around for awhile, others she leaves right away… but I just do what I know supports me to feel better and trust that the feelings will pass. What helps me the most when the anxiety does show up… moving my body, eating, preparing and sipping coffee or homemade tea blends, taking a long shower, walking in the forest, listening to really loud music, cleaning and writing!!! Writing helps so much! ❤️❤️❤️
Over time, and through many, many Day Ones, I learned how to hold the anxiety at bay. Long showers, meditation, exercise, chamomile or peppermint tea, and breathing exercises all helped. I learned to expect that I would feel anxious without alcohol, and then I learned to work through the anxiety and hold off on drinking for longer and longer periods of time. I found that if I got through the first three to five days, it usually abated quite a bit. It at least moved into the background enough that I didn’t have to work so hard to soothe it.
When I quit for the last time, I felt oddly fine for the first few days. I had one incredibly powerful craving that turned into an anxiety attack on day six or seven, I don’t remember which. I made it through that, and then, even though I was anxious off and on for about six weeks, it was manageable. I kept going back to my toolbox and using whatever worked to get through it. I persisted, and the anxiety abated. These days it’s mostly gone. Every now and then I notice that I’m having a high anxiety day, but that pervasive, invasive, all-consuming anxiety is nowhere to be found. I feel calm most of the time. I have moments of true serenity, when I can smile and breathe deeply and I just know, I really truly FEEL, that everything is fine. Everything will be ok. I never ever have to drink again. I never ever have to feel that way again. I finally found the relief I was looking for. Turns out I just had to stop looking for it at the bottom of a bottle.
More Reading on Alcohol and Anxiety :
Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind by Judson Brewer
I am a lifelong anxiety sufferer who drank mainly to cope with uncomfortable feelings. In my 71 years I’ve had a ton of therapy (much of it very helpful). I’ve taken a variety of medications for insomnia and generalized anxiety disorder. Putting down my wine glass for good was the single best thing I ever did for my mental health.
But it didn’t “fix” me. Living alcohol-free has brought challenges and opportunities for finding new ways to cope long-term without reverting to the numbing and destructive cycle of daily drinking I relied on for too many years. In the past 21 months, I’ve read widely about addiction and mental health. I’ve learned some helpful hacks (including tapping) for interrupting anxiety attacks. I do breathing exercises and meditate for at least a few minutes every day, and I get more exercise than I used to. All of it helps, and I’m thankful, but I ‘m not what anyone would call cured. I’m still me, for better or worse.
The new book Unwinding Anxiety, by Dr. Judson Brewer, has been blowing my mind on a daily basis while giving me practical, accessible, and science-based tools for dealing with anxiety and addiction that are very easy to apply.The author begins by laying a foundation of knowledge about the way our brains work, using the same basic information that Marc Lewis focuses on in The Biology of Desire.
You can find Brewer talking about his approach on numerous videos of varying lengths, and he has a good website full of free resources. The book is available on Audible and Kindle. Here’s the best overview I found. I recommend it for everyone who struggles with anxiety and/or addiction of any kind.
Professor Jud Brewer’s new book explains how to uproot anxiety at its source with brain-based techniques accessible to anyone
And from our Boozemusings Blog
Alcohol, Anxiety and the Octopus
My anxiety comes from my codependent behavior of not keeping healthy boundaries. I try to fix every problem and situation my family/friends / society has . Most times it is not my circle of responsibility yet I feel guilty and anxious and depressed if I can’t fix it . I learned I drink to punish myself for someone else’s problem! How ridiculous and how dysfunctional. I am getting better at learning what is and isn’t inside my circle of control and responsibility.
When anxiety gets the best of me instead of drinking I use the common AA mantra “ Let go and let God “ as I deep breathe and meditate on those words. It’s God’s job not mine to fix problems out of my circle of responsibility.
What a relief it is to me to remember this .
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