When we think about the dangers of an alcohol use disorder (AUD), we often think of the physical effects on our health, such as our organs’ ability to function correctly. However, an often overlooked danger of alcohol is its negative impact on mental health. Here’s how alcohol negatively impacts our mental health and how it should impact our lifestyle toward mental wellness.
Alcohol is technically a drug and belongs to the class of drugs known as central nervous system (CNS) depressants. CNS depressants slow down brain activity. As a result, the substance affects our mood, emotional state, behaviors, and self-control. Alcohol works in the body by reprogramming the brain to work differently from how it normally does, specifically how it communicates with the rest of the body.
Unfortunately, this symptom does not go away after alcohol exits the body. Over time, hippocampal shrinkage can permanently damage the brain. Not only does this brain shrinkage lead to memory loss, but it also results in difficulty regulating our emotions and the emotions of others around us. This means alcohol can directly influence our emotional state, both short and long-term. Because of this, we should strongly consider if there is a connection between a decrease in mental health and an increase in alcohol consumption. Because of how alcohol works in the body, we know this link is more than a coincidence.
Alcohol consumption is usually pictured in two contrasting ways: celebration and misery. Plenty of people enjoy using alcohol for happy occasions and do not notice if it adversely affects their mental well-being. On the other side, people who are depressed will regularly turn to alcohol, using it to forget their problems and find an emotional escape that brings them feelings of happiness. How can these both be true?
In one sense, we have to realize that alcohol, like any other drug, affects everyone differently. Some people are more likely to experience the euphoric side effects of alcohol, while others intensely experience the drug’s negative effects. This also raises the important question: is alcohol a negative cause or a negative effect on mental health? To answer, we have to understand dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis means that underlying issues, contributing factors, and unresolved mental issues all play a part in having a substance use disorder and mental health at the same time. In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), millions of people qualify for dual diagnosis. This means that alcohol can be both the cause of our mental unhealthiness and/or the effect of our mental unhealthiness.
Again, we must emphasize that each person’s circumstances and experiences differ. Because of this, there is no specific rule of thumb about whether people use alcohol because their mental health has been negatively impacted or whether alcohol consumption has made them mentally unhealthy. Sometimes, both can be true, and sometimes only one of these is true.
However, we can take a serious look at how alcohol works in the body, what it affects, and what long-term use does to us. According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are long-term and have chronic health risks associated with alcohol. There is much more risk than reward regarding alcohol use and maintaining optimal mental health.
When we start seeing patterns of depression or anxiety due to not using alcohol, the addiction potential is very high. If we are already addicted, the withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol can seriously harm our mental health. If this is true of us or those we love, the most important first step toward recovery is to detox from the substance. Fortunately, we can seek professional help from a team dedicated to helping us each step of the way.
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