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Can alcohol make us feel more down?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stressful time for everyone. But can alcohol make us feel more down? For Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May) consultant psychiatrist Prof Eilish Gilvarry gives some thoughts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an extremely stressful time for many people in the UK, with established routines disrupted, money worries, teaching children at home, and concerns over the health of ourselves and our loved ones.

In many ways a big void in our lives has been created and people will fill it in different ways. And that is where alcohol might come in. However, over use of alcohol can be counter-productive, with increasing weight, increasing anxiety and poor quality sleep.

One of the best ways to get into the best possible physical and mental health is to make sure we get enough sleep, but regular heavy alcohol use interferes with quality sleep.

It means you might have a few drinks, initially fall asleep, but then don’t get as much good quality sleep as you need. You’re more likely to wake up earlier with racing thoughts, and carry for the rest of the day that unpleasant feeling of being tired, restless and sluggish from both the alcohol and sleep deprivation. If anxiety is already an issue, a hangover can make these symptoms worse.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, regularly drinking alcohol affects the chemistry of the brain and that can increase the risk of depression. As we drink more, the impact on our brain function increases. And irrespective of the mood we start in, after a few drinks it’s possible that negative emotions will take over. Alcohol can be linked to aggression and some people do report these feelings when they drink.

We hear frequently of a vicious cycle where heavy drinking and depression aggravate each other, especially when drinking starts again the next day to try to relieve the feelings/anxiety which alcohol is causing and worsening. It’s also important that medications for depression should not be mixed with alcohol.

Research does show that reducing or stopping drinking can improve mood. It is remarkable how many people who have completed ‘Dry January’ often recall a feeling of alertness and positivity which is why some keep going into February and beyond.

It is important to be aware of the role alcohol can play in our lives.  Alcohol can be insidious, in that it creeps up into an everyday habit. People often use drinking as a relaxant but drinking to lift mood rarely ends up being “just one drink’’. It is important to find other ways to enjoy ourselves and create routines that don’t always include alcohol.

My advice is to be aware of your mood when you drink, be aware of why you drink and count how much you drink. Be aware of the importance of being kind to yourself, of developing and keeping routines for mental and physical health. One of the best ways to do that is to follow the Chief Medical Officer’s advice of having several drink free days and drinking no more than 14 units a week.

Prof Eilish Gilvarry is consultant psychiatrist in Addictions at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne & Wear NHS Foundation Trust

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