Using alcohol as a means to deal with stress is an accidental American pastime. It’s a trope seen time and time again across entertainment. It’s the reason why idioms such as “cracking open a cold one after a hard day’s work,” “cry into your beer,” and “hit the bottle,” exist in the first place. This trend isn’t just something taken straight from fictional television shows and movies, but the exact opposite — it is a reflection of real-life across the country. Art imitates reality, after all.
In 2019, 25.8% of people ages 18 and older (29.7% of men in this age group and 22.2 percent of women in this age group) reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Colorado, where we’re located, had an 18.1% prevalence of binge drinking among adults in 2015, according to the CDC. This is compared to the highest state, North Dakota, which had a 24.9%.
Alcohol and stress are an unfortunate and all-too-likely pairing. Drinking as a means to cope is perhaps second only to celebratory drinking as the most common form of the habit. In fact, in a study by The Recovery Village involving 2,000 respondents who battle alcohol use disorder and have tried to stop or want to stop, 65% of respondents said their problem started by using alcohol to cope with stress. Whether the action is done intentionally in order to seek relief or unconsciously as the stress becomes overwhelming, the long-term repercussions of stress drinking can be severe.
The Connection Between Alcohol and Stress
Before addressing stress drinking as a whole, it is imperative to understand the psychological part of the equation — stress itself. Stress is a complex state of mind. Its origins, level of intensity, and impact are fully subjective and vary from person to person. Overall, its causes can be lumped together into four overarching areas: catastrophic events, childhood stress, racial or minority stress, and general stress. For the most part, the first three are instances that happen to someone and are out of their direct control. General-life stressors include events such as starting a job, divorce, moving to a new city, and grieving after a death. Researchers point to long-term, chronic stress leading to problems across many bodily systems. Digestion and hormones become imbalanced. Increased heart rate can damage the cardiovascular system. Tense muscles and bones cause aching pains. The nervous system remains in a fight-or-flight response mode. Simply put, the body cannot function properly when it is always on edge.
If an individual does not have a resilience built up, their ability to cope is greatly compromised. Substances such as drugs or alcohol can fill this void, if only temporarily and ineffectively so. This is the key takeaway concerning stress drinking: doing so has no marked improvement on stress. The reprieve is simply momentary or perceived.
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Binge Drinking and Stress
The perception society has about drinking alcohol is varied. Marketing has reinforced that such beverages are synonymous with a good time. This can be incorrectly translated or misconstrued as being a cure for bad times. Binge-drinking is not simply a habit found on college campuses around the country, it is a serious problem facing people from all walks of life. At some point, drinking for relief became an accepted norm, even piece of health editorial advice. Everyone has seen them, the articles proclaiming the supposed health benefits of alcohol consumption. It’s the having-one-glass-of-wine-at-dinner effect. There seems to be a new study that comes out every few months. What begins as tidbits with qualifiers, such as “when used in moderation,” can quickly devolve into someone needing alcohol for day-to-day stress. Even if there is supporting evidence — as is the case with the previously mentioned single glass of wine at dinner — it creates a precedent. It normalizes alcohol use at the end of the day. When destructive behavior becomes an accepted norm it can quickly go off the rails.
Consequences of Stress-Related Drinking
So, stress is bad. And alcohol is, too. It’s no surprise, then, that the two aggravate one another. As an example, someone may drink because of relationship stress. This drinking leads to further relationship problems which, in turn, can cause more stress and additional alcohol use. Alcohol does not relieve stress; it creates a vicious cycle instead.
Both constant alcohol use over time and binge-drinking will lead to illnesses. From cancer to heart disease and coma to liver failure, the worst of the worst are frequently observed. Another grave ailment is known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Also referred to as “wet brain,” this degenerative disorder leads to crippling brain damage as the result of extended alcohol use. Alcohol affects the body’s capability to absorb thiamine (Vitamin B1). Without it, the brain is left susceptible to prolonged injury. Permanent memory loss is just one outcome — death is a certainty if the symptoms go untreated.
In addition to numerous physical and mental side effects, an individual may find that they can’t function without drinking to alleviate stress. Dependences and substance use disorders are prevalent byproducts of stress-induced alcoholism. When alcohol is absent from the system, withdrawal symptoms can come about shortly afterward. Beyond being mildly uncomfortable, in some instances, alcohol withdrawal has the potential to be deadly. In fact, alcohol has among the most challenging withdrawal period of any substance.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life. But alcohol doesn’t have to be the way to address it. Medical professionals advise that stress should be dealt with in a positive manner. Altering one’s diet, exercising more, picking up a hobby, getting together with friends, and endless other avenues are preferred to binging. Colorado is fortunate enough to have plenty of anti-stress activities. The Rockies have become a stress-free refuge for many. At the same time, Colorado is one of the states with the highest concentration of breweries. Whether someone chooses temptation or salvation is up to personal choice. One drink every once in awhile can be reasonable, as long as that one drink doesn’t turn into two or three and become a learned response. It must always be remembered that stress will pass — alcohol use disorders will outlast any short-term tribulations.
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NIAAA. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, June 2021. Accessed July 23, 2021.
CDC. “Data on Excessive Drinking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, September 3, 2020. Accessed August 3, 2021.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.