Before the big conversation around mental health kicked off a few years ago, thinking about what made you feel mentally better or worse wasn’t even really a thing. It certainly didn’t feature while deciding how much and how often to go out for drinks, which is funny when you think how alcohol can make your mental state go from happy to horrible in a 24-hour window. What was the deep spiral of anxiety compared to the joy of Aperol Spritz in the sun? The mentally destructive undercurrent of self-loathing could wait until the morning after. These days, however, the mental angst seems to be a price we are less willing to pay. A recent study by the University of Hong Kong following more than 10,000 people over five years has shown reducing or quitting alcohol can impact mental well- being in a positive way – in particular, for women. Researchers found that people who never drink had the highest level of mental well-being, and women who quit drinking reported the biggest positive change.
I’ve been steadily trying to cut down drinking over the past 10 years, initially because I was fed up with blackouts and waking up to ‘do you remember what you did?!’ messages from friends the next day. But in the last five years, cutting down has all been based around my mental health. I started to experience panic attacks related first to a hole-in-the-heart surgery I had in 2012, and then when my husband passed away in 2015. I’d also experience periods of deep anxiety – and alcohol made it worse.
At first, I’d go along with peer pressure and would have a drink. But even one could be the difference between being mentally fine and really not. My lightbulb moment was realising that no one else occupied my brain other than me, and so they didn’t get a say in whether or not I put a chemical in my body that would adversely affect it. And I’m far from alone. The sober movement is now huge, while the ‘sober curious’ movement is growing. Last year, a Nielsen report revealed that a quarter of Brits want to drink less – and, increasingly, mental health is cited as a reason. Josh Roberts, whose book Anxious Man is out next year, is convinced that alcohol had a big role in his being diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. ‘Throughout my twenties I, like most people, drank to excess,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t an alcoholic. I didn’t need a drink, I just liked one. And compared to my friends and colleagues, my booze intake didn’t seem excessive.
I can’t tell you how many days started hungover, or sub-par at least. And if you already have anxiety and self-esteem issues, the very last thing you need is to spend all day wallowing in last night’s shame.’ Yet rather than self-flagellating because we think we have no willpower and yet again have a hangover, it’s important to recognise that the nature of alcohol makes it hard to give up. Drinking is immediately rewarding for the brain, says neuroscientist Dr Sarah McKay, author of Demystifying The Female Brain. Despite rumours to the contrary, she says there is no particular type of alcohol that makes you more anxious or depressed.
However, the brain goes on a roller coaster when you start drinking alcohol, as it switches on neurotransmitters associated with being excited – dopamine and serotonin – which is why you feel so great during those first few glasses. ‘If you are a regular drinker and you really enjoy the anticipation of a drink, then those neurochemical changes occur even before you have sipped it,’ says Dr McKay. ‘It’s habit-forming, rewarding and enjoyable and has a short-term, immediate positive impact on how we feel. Very often we have a drink because we want it, not because we need it.’
In addition, scientists suspect alcohol mimics GABA, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain – slowing its activity. However, when you stop drinking and the brain tries to rebalance its chemical levels, you can end up with low levels of GABA, which leads to anxiety. People process and respond to alcohol differently, so how much it depresses you, or makes your anxiety worse, can depend on your underlying mental issues. For instance, you might have a drink because you’ve had a stressful day. ‘Not everyone wants to confront their issues,’ Dr McKay adds, ‘and maybe a glass of wine helps.’ Drinking interferes with the neural pathways responsible for reward and motivation, so it can be a short cut to relieving stress, she notes.
But if you’ve been under prolonged stress, drinking to excess could be worsening your mental state. That’s not to say we have to quit drinking altogether, but rather it’s about making smart choices that support our mental wellbeing. Grace Paul, a 28-year-old freelance editor, says she drank because she felt it made her more ‘fun’. When she started going to therapy for issues unrelated to alcohol, she realised she was using alcohol to numb her anxiety. ‘The day after a big night I would wake up full of shame and dread. This would then lead to days of self-loathing and negative thoughts that would turn into an anxiety spiral. It was constant,’ she says. She started cutting back by stopping ‘pre-drinking’ before a night out, sticking to single measures and a maximum of three or four drinks a night. ‘Noticing the positive effect it’s had on my mental health and wellbeing has been a key factor in cutting down,’ she adds.
Stephanie Barnes, 32, a PR director, stopped drinking eight months ago. ‘I am quite a positive, upbeat person but after alcohol I literally couldn’t move for about three days and the anxiety was so crippling,’ she says. ‘Since quitting, I’ve been so much clearer on everything. I have lost two stone, I get up early and I have more energy. I mainly quit so I wasn’t in a hole of anxiety after drinking but I also stopped for the sake of bettering my relationship with myself.’
As for me, I experimented first with setting some rules, such as only drinking on holiday or a special occasion. That helped me to segue to ‘mindful drinking’: basically, only having a drink when I fancied it as opposed to drinking under pressure. On the days I did drink too much, the mental impact was immense, and I realised a few hours of fun were nothing compared to feeling in control of my own brain.
These days, I find chunks of abstinence are more manageable than one or two glasses spread out over the week. The warning sign that I am drinking too much is when that feeling of guilt and loathing creeps back in. Then I know it’s time to rein it in – and I feel much better for it.