The links between alcohol and mental health

The links between alcohol and mental health

Don Shenker, founder of the Alcohol Health Network, explains why it's important to understand the link between mental health and alcohol consumption.

Many employers are recognising the importance of promoting a healthier relationship with alcohol by raising alcohol awareness with their employees.  Recent research from Opinium showed that around 1 in 5 adults in the UK (21%) are drinking more frequently since lockdown measures were introduced due to stress and anxiety. This is not unexpected. Even in normal times, many people use alcohol to unwind, reduce stress and ease the pressures of the working day.

However there comes a point where drinking too much alcohol begins to impact on our mental wellbeing more negatively than positively. As the boundaries of work and home life may become blurred for some, employers can help their employees by providing access to relevant support and information.

I think that it’s especially important that employers continue the work that they have been putting into wellbeing strategies prior to Covid-19. Whilst a higher alcohol consumption was something joked about at the beginning of lockdown, with the reality of how long this situation may continue, we really need to encourage our employees to take check of their overall health and settle into healthier routines for the longer term. It’s easy to form new unhealthy habits when your routine has been taken away so tools like the Drink Checker can be a helpful reality check

Sophie Money, Group Protection Wellbeing Manager

What’s the connection between alcohol and mental health?

Alcohol use and mental wellbeing are interlinked and as well as drinking for pleasure, many of us will sometimes drink more than we realise or intend to simply to manage difficult situations or feelings 1. Living under lockdown restrictions, with the demands on our family life, working situation and concerns about health inevitably lead to greater stress and often more drinking. 

The problem is that alcohol is a depressant drug – as well as an initial sense of relief and ‘buzz’ that the first sip or drink offers, alcohol actually depresses the central nervous system and too much of it can actually cause depression, anxiety and restlessness. It can also disturb good sleep patterns. 

In addition, due to its addictive properties, alcohol can also sometimes unwittingly be over-relied upon to manage stress, rather than dealing with stress through more positive action 2.

Either way round, if you find you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed during these uncertain times, it’s worth considering how much you’re drinking and whether this may be contributing to your mental wellbeing.

Keeping our immune system healthy and our mental wellbeing positive is paramount right now when our health is more important than ever.

What’s the impact of alcohol and mental health issues?

Feeling stressed, depressed or anxious can be extremely difficult and emotionally draining. At the same time, drinking alcohol in order to alleviate feelings of stress or anxiety can also cause its own problems, such as financial difficulties, long-term ill health and further problems at work and home. 

Sleep and tiredness

Drinking too much alcohol can disturb our sleep patterns making us even more tired the next day. Our immune system relies on good sleep. If you drink too much alcohol just before going to bed, you fall straight into ‘deep sleep’, meaning you then only experience light sleep when the effects of drinking wear off and you’re then more prone to waking during the rest of the night 3.

What can I do to keep well?

Being aware of how much you drink and sticking to, or below, the lower risk alcohol guidelines lowers the risk of alcohol contributing to your stress, anxiety or depression. Drink Checker allows you to anonymously check how much you’re drinking and whether this is higher than usual.

If working from home, try and ensure you switch off completely from work – a walk or exercise is a good separation in place of your usual commute – before you have your first drink. There are also plenty of alcohol-free drinks that provide the same taste, with no alcohol. 

Exercise also helps reduce stress and anxiety, as does meditation or yoga. If you do notice feeling anxious or depressed, rather than drinking, talking to someone can help – this might be a friend, family member, colleague or your GP.

6 tips to stay healthy

  1. Check your drinking - often we don't realise how much we are drinking and knowing our drinking levels is often enough to make us cut back
  2. Use small glasses to help you pour smaller measures
  3. Drink only with food
  4. Try to have 2-3 days with no alcohol each week
  5. Try and notice your stress levels - see if you can do something else to feel more relaxed - a walk, a bath, some gardening or cooking
  6. Try low alcohol and alcohol-free drinks - some of them are really rather good!

Alcohol Health Network are running Alcohol Awareness Webinars on advice and tips to drink safely and stay healthy during Coronavirus.

Please email hello@alcoholhealthnetwork.org.uk for more information or visit their website to see more of what they do.

Don is the Founder and Director of the Alcohol Health Network - a social enterprise specialising in promoting alcohol awareness in the workplace. They provide expert resources for employers who wish to promote alcohol awareness as well as training, online learning and policy advice.

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