Masking, Not Fixing: Self-Medicating Anxiety Disorders with Alcohol

You’re expected at a benefit in two hours. You’re dressed, you’re ready, and you’re falling to pieces because everybody’s going to be there, you have to give a speech, and your job depends on just how well you do in front of people. You have a couple of drinks now, so when you get there you’ll be comfortable, easygoing, and relaxed. Drinking to curb anxiety is a strategy you’ve found works, and it’s worked this long–it’s taken you this far–so why stop?

People self-medicate using alcohol for a multitude of reasons, many of them stemming from a mental health disorder, such as social phobia or general anxiety. In fact, nearly 37% of people with alcohol dependence suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. It may seem like a solution, but it only adds to the problem.

My own story

I used to drink before important appointments like social functions, job interviews, and meeting my family. I was so nervous before my first big, adult office job, I knew I needed something to take the edge off, or I would be a complete mess–so I drank a beer in my car on the way to the interview. To my great misfortune, this tactic worked, reinforcing my belief that alcohol was somehow good for me. I recall that it seemed to work so well, that I figured I should drink before work on a regular basis. I had already been drinking before meetings at prior jobs, and even during work as a valet. I thought I had figured out some secret no one else ever thought of: drinking on the job. I made it through orientation just fine, but then on my third day, I drank way too much before work, got tired, and cussed out my very nice boss–who I remember was friendly to me and even asked me to come back, which I never did. Because not only was I routinely breaking the law before 9:00a.m., but I quickly fell into a major depression from the alcohol abuse, which spurred on an increasingly dangerous alcoholism that rapidly took hold of my life–and then took years of recovery to undo.

Through recovery, I experienced major episodes of anxiety, as if all the discomfort I had ever evaded through drinking found me, after all that time, and caught up to me. I am among one in five alcoholics with anxiety disorders and I suffered greatly from it. My family, it seemed at the time, couldn’t understand how alcohol was “helping” me, which added to my frustration, even while drinking. It disappointed them, leaving a lasting impression on them of me as a failure, which I could not live down in their lifetimes. My family wasn’t really involved in helping me get better, and we didn’t know how to talk to each other about our problems. Having failed at my job, I lived at home again, and my little brother and sister used to ask me to stop. Not wanting them to follow in my footsteps helped me turn a corner with my alcoholism.

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Self-medicating isn’t the solution

Relying on alcohol to “just get you through” the anxiety has shown to lead to dependency and addiction–and can even make your anxiety worse in the long run. If you’ve already been masking anxiety with alcohol for some time, then you’re no doubt familiar with the uncomfortable phenomenon of “rebound” anxiety–anxiety that appears a few hours after the alcohol wears off: besides the damage to your liver, and just having “the shakes” in general, you might also experience something like a panic attack. And prolonged self-medicating can exacerbate your anxiety disorder–making this short-term ‘solution’ far from helpful. If you’ve been using alcohol to mask anxiety and social fears, then you should strongly consider the benefits of professional treatment in a residential setting.

Finding true resolution

Because alcohol won’t cure anxiety–a very real, but treatable, mental health disorder–even if you seek treatment for your alcoholism, your anxiety disorder will continue to create problems in your life. Treat these co-occurring disorders at the same time to rid yourself of the alcoholism, and the cause behind it. At Bridges to Recovery, our trained professionals are highly skilled in working with co-occurring disorders. We will work with you to develop a treatment plan which addresses both conditions separately, and as they interact, looking at the whole you, and working to bring you back to health.

Getting help before you let it affect your job–or more importantly, your health–is important, and should be a careful process. Your happiness comes first, and treating both your anxiety and your substance abusecreates a stable and comfortable foundation for that growth to occur. You come first.