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. Research from Opinium showed that around 1 in 5 adults in the UK (28%) are drinking more frequently since lockdown measures were first introduced. 

This is not unexpected. Even in normal times, many people use alcohol to unwind, reduce stress and ease the pressures of the working day — and the pandemic has undoubtedly been a major cause of the anxiety that can lead to worsening stress.

Though we might be tempted to drink to relive immediate pressures, 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. By sharing the tips in this article you can help employees to think about their relationship with alcohol and consider healthier options to reduce stress.

As the restrictions caused by COVID-19 begin to be relaxed, this is a good time for employers to refocus on the work they put into wellbeing strategies before the pandemic. Changes in routine — and lockdown in particular — may have led to increased alcohol consumption for many, but now is the time to think about the long term — whether this is a return to previous ways of working or settling into an improved and more sustainable routine. Tools like the Drink Checker can be useful in providing a ‘reality check’ which can form a starting point for healthier habits.

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]Footnote 1. For many, living under the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic has put additional strain on family life and working situations. 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]Footnote 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]Footnote 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. Take a walk or do some gardening if you can — getting close to nature can reduce a sense of isolation and help protect mental health
  6. Try low alcohol and alcohol-free drinks — some of them are really rather good!

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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