Do you instinctively reach for a glass of wine or a cold beer after a stressful day?
While alcohol can feel like it is making you more relaxed; drinking regularly to manage the effects of stress can actually make your stress worse.
You might think that a strong drink can have a calming effect, but dealing with stress long term requires a clear-head and the ability to solve problems rationally. Many of us have first hand experience of alcohol interfering with our ability to make good decisions, and this can be exacerbated when we’re feeling stressed or anxious.
By turning to alcohol, you are effectively numbing yourself from the stress and whatever has caused it – rather than dealing with the stressor. Additionally, alcohol is classified as a depressant because it slows down the central nervous system, causing a decrease in motor coordination, reaction time and intellectual performance.
Eva Cyhlarova from The Mental Health Foundation says: “Over time, heavy drinking interferes with the neurotransmitters in the brain that are needed for good mental health. So while alcohol may help deal with stress in the short term, in the long run it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with.”
A bad night’s sleep
Alcohol can also interfere with your sleep. It may make you feel tired to begin with, but it inhibits REM sleep, so you might end up waking up in the middle of the night, and find it difficult to get back to sleep. You will also wake up feeling less rested.
Additionally alcohol interferes with your body’s ability to rest, restore and recover, particularly important if you exercise. A recent study by Tampere University of Technology found that even one unit of alcohol negatively reduces the quality of the sleep you get that night, particularly in the first few hours.
The first few hours of sleep are when you would normally be benefiting from the rejuvenating powers of deep sleep. And the more you are drinking to relieve stress, the greater the effect on your recovery.
It doesn't matter if you're young, old, active or sedentary, the study showed that the effect of alcohol on sleep quality was universally bad.
After drinking, recovery was reduced by:
- 9.2% in low alcohol consumption (1-2 drinks)
- 24% in moderate alcohol consumption (2-6 drinks)
- 39.2% in high alcohol consumption (6+ drinks)
How to relax and manage stress without alcohol
Relying on alcohol to relieve stress can inhibit your overall enjoyment of your life, whether drinking at the end of the work day or to manage with other stressful situations. If you need, or want, to be on top of your game at home or with friends, adding alcohol to an already stressful emotional state isn’t the best choice for your mood or your relationships. Learning other techniques to help you deal with stress is important.
Whatever stress you're facing, there are more effective ways to cope with it than drinking too much alcohol:
Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to combat stress. It is a great way to de-stress: even a brisk walk can help clear your head of the day's worries. It may seem contradictory, but putting physical stress on your body through exercise can help to relieve mental stress.
The benefits are strongest when you exercise regularly. Research has shown that people who exercise regularly are less likely to experience anxiety than those who don't exercise.
Gentle stretching and a hot bath can help to relieve stress and tension from your body. It may also help to create a new ritual. To relieve stress, you can look for and attend a local yoga class or do some stretches at home, then run a hot bath and allow yourself 30 minutes to decompress.
Additionally, lighting a candle that contains essential oils may help to lower your stress further. A study that looked at the effects of essential oils on stress responses found that stress levels were significantly lower when the students received the aroma treatment compared to when they received a placebo treatment.
Chew gum. A quick and effective way to get rid of stress is to chew gum, research has shown that this is particularly effective when you chew gum quickly. Rather than reaching for a beer, buy some chewing gum on your way home and see how it impacts your stress levels.
Break the habit
Drinking alcohol to relieve stress is counterintuitive. We don't always think as clearly after we've been drinking, and it’s been scientifically proven that we don't sleep as well. Both of these factors impact on how well you will deal with stress tomorrow. And the next day. So, often drinking to relax can become a habit but it is a habit worth breaking to live a happier, healthier life.
If you’re looking for more support to stop relying on alcohol to manage stress, One Year No Beer, run 28, 90 and 365 Day Alcohol-Free Challenges. Rather than just deleting alcohol from your life, we help people break down and rebuild new habits, working with you to build a new mindset that gives you complete control, that will last way past finishing your alcohol-free challenge.