From a glass of wine or two with dinner to grabbing a beer after work with friends, alcohol is often associated with relaxing or unwinding after a long day. And while people might use alcohol to help ease anxiety and stress, excessive alcohol use can actually have the opposite effect, and may worsen mental health.
“Many people think that alcohol helps with stress and anxiety because we feel relaxed after a glass of wine, or more social after a drink or two,” says Lindsay Killam, registered social worker and Clinical Director at TELUS Health. “This feeling of relaxation is no doubt a primary motivation to consume alcohol. But when we have more than one drink on a single occasion, the chemical response in our brain may actually lead to increased feelings of anxiety the next day.”
We caught up with Killam to get her take on the link between alcohol and mental health, and to find out what to watch for when evaluating how much is too much.
How might alcohol affect someone’s mental health, both short and long term?
As well as increased feelings of anxiety, it’s also possible to feel feelings of shame and remorse, Killam says, noting that long term alcohol use can contribute to depression too.
“Alcohol can interfere with sleep,” says Killam. “It might make us feel sleepy, but the processing of alcohol through the body during the night interferes with sleep cycles.”
Not getting enough sleep may leave us unable to regulate our emotions, which itself may increase the risk of developing depression. Poor sleep quality might even impact one’s personality over time, according to registered psychologist Dr. Lephuong Ong. She notes that research indicates deteriorating sleep quality can cause someone to be less extroverted, less agreeable and less conscientiousness - potentially setting the stage for poorer mental health overall.
How much is too much when it comes to alcohol?
Recent studies about alcohol and cancer risk has caused the Canadian Centre for Substance Use1 to recommend no more than 2 drinks per week. But different individuals may have a different approach when it comes to risk evaluation.
“Everyone’s relationship with alcohol is different,” says Killam. “A low risk relationship with alcohol is one where there are no social or physical consequences to consumption.”
What does this mean exactly? According to Killam, it could be a glass of wine with dinner, or an afternoon beer on a day you don’t have to drive.
“For some people it may feel fine to have a glass or even two of some form of alcohol on a fairly regular basis, while for others even an occasional glass might feel uncomfortable,” she says. “The main thing is being able to weigh the benefits and consequences, and being able to land at a place where you are mitigating risk.”
What are some signs that alcohol use may be problematic?
Killam says there are a few things to watch out for that may indicate whether alcohol use may be becoming a problem.
Not being able to stop drinking once you start
Craving alcohol, or feeling discomfort on a day when you don’t drink
Social consequences like drinking alone, conflict with family or friends, impact to job performance or relationships
Changes in mental health, such as anxiety or depression, or feelings of shame
Frequently feeling hungover
Feeling unable to participate in social activities without alcohol
If you have noticed any of these signs in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to seek support.
What a registered social worker wants you to know about alcohol and mental health
We asked Lindsay what one thing was that she wished more people knew when it comes to the link between alcohol and mental health.
“Alcohol only numbs us for a moment,” she says, reflecting on how society often promotes an image of alcohol as the answer to stress. “Having a drink doesn’t solve or eradicate the stress from our lives, and we can get the same relaxing chemical responses in our brain in much healthier and sustainable ways. It can be as simple as cuddling or playing with a dog, having a good belly laugh, connecting deeply with another person, or doing something fun.”
Support is available
If you have concerns about alcohol use, it may be worth speaking with someone. With TELUS Health Virtual Care, you can speak directly with a registered nurse or nurse practitioner from the comfort of your own home, who can help you evaluate next steps. Mental health support is also available from TELUS Health.
Written in consultation with Lindsay Killam, registered social worker.
Canada’s guidance on Alcohol and Health: Final Report. Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction . (2023, January). https://ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2023-01/CCSA_Canadas_Guidance_on_Alcohol_and_Health_Final_Report_en.pdf?trk=public_post_comment-text