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Does Drinking Reduce My Stress?

By Bob Barnett | 9/24/2013, 9:02 a.m.
There's a little beverage I'd like to tell you about. It's kind of magical.
The verdict: Yes, alcohol can relieve stress when consumed in limited amounts, for certain people in specific situations. In virtually all other cases, it makes stress worse. Photo by William Armsby/CNN.

Smashed and stress-free

Get drunk, on the other hand, and your body really relaxes. Totally. Stress, what's that? You're at the legal intoxication level, which the average person would get to after drinking, say, five 12-ounce regular beers in two hours.

At that level, "Alcohol reduces anxious-type responses, there's a dampening of your stress response and your heart rate, and you're inured to acute stressors, especially if you experience them when you're drunk," says Sher.

Got a problem with that? Sher certainly does.

"Unfortunately, the most reliable stress-reducing effects of alcohol occur at the most problematic doses, in terms of both acute harm and dependence," he says.

So let's get back to the nice pleasant drink or two with friends. That's moderate drinking, which has heart-health benefits along with psychological ones. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines "moderate" for men as no more than four drinks at a time and no more than 14 drinks a week. For women, it's no more than three drinks at a time and no more than seven drinks a week.

"If it's part of a lifestyle to enjoy food and alcohol, and you look forward to it, that's fine," says Carol Landau, clinical professor of psychiatry and medicine at the Alpert Medical School, Brown University. "It's an enjoyable habit, a lifestyle pleasure."

The dark side of drinking

How can you tell when you're drifting to the dark side? "If you're looking forward to a drink to relieve your stress, on a regular basis, that is a warning sign," says Sher. "There's a very strong relationship between having thoughts like, 'Alcohol helps me relax' and 'Having a few drinks makes my trouble go away' and alcohol dependency problems."

"Be especially careful if you have problems with anxiety," adds Landau. "If you have an anxiety disorder, you're more than twice as likely as the general population to develop an alcohol dependency." If you're taking meds, regular drinking is even more dangerous: Never mix benzodiazepine drugs for anxiety or panic disorders (Xanax, Ativan, Clonipine) with booze. Alcohol interacts negatively with lots of other medications, too. (Click here to see a list.)

Even if you don't have an anxiety disorder (or depression), it's easy to fall into the bad habit of using booze to chill out.

"I see a whole generation heading for their 30s who use stimulants to study, and then alcohol and marijuana to have fun," says Landau. "That's not a good pattern."

For women already in their 30s, she sees another pattern: "Her caffeine-fueled days are stressful, so she comes home stressed out and has a drink. That's not a healthy habit either."

Dependent on drinks

Once you start relying on alcohol to cut stress, you're in trouble. "When you're alcohol-dependent, you're chronically stressed at a baseline level," says Sher. "It's kind of an emotional 'hair of the dog' phenomenon. Part of the stress you're feeling is a consequence of the dependency." Read: You have higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, so you have to drink alcohol to get back to "normal."

The key signal is flexibility. If you're disappointed there's no alcohol and you're having trouble not drinking at a party or a friend's house, you likely have a problem. "That's a sign of dependency," says Landau.

Says Sher, "If you're using any drug as a primary way to regulate emotion, you're in big trouble."

So if you can drink moderately, go ahead and enjoy it. But if you're relying on alcohol to relieve stress, you're walking down a dangerous path. Look into other ways to reduce your stress.

This article was originally published on upwave.com.

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