Alcohol and Your Mental Health: What You Need to Know

Most of us are aware of how alcohol affects our physical health, but do we really understand how it impacts our mental health? We spoke to Marie Quinn, Workplace and Wellness Manager at Drinkaware to find out more.

The Link Between Alcohol and Mental Health

We only have to scratch the surface to see that alcohol and mental health have always been linked. “One of the reasons we drink is in order for it to have an effect on our mind,” Marie explains. “Often we’re drinking to cheer ourselves up, to celebrate or to forget about something.” It stands to reason then, that alcohol has an effect on how we feel. A recent Drinkaware study shows that 50% of us are using alcohol as a coping mechanism. “It’s worrying,” Marie notes, “because it’s not a very healthy way of dealing with a negative emotion. Secondly, because we know that drinking to excess can promote depression, we can find ourselves in a vicious cycle.”

Ever Had ‘Hangxiety’? 

If you’ve ever experienced ‘The Fear’ (also called ‘Hangxiety’), you’ve had first-hand experience of how alcohol can increase anxiety. “If you’re drinking to relieve anxiety, it can lead to changes in the chemistry of the brain,” Marie explains, “and can lead to depletion of some of the neurotransmitters necessary to help us to control anxiety.” Drinking to cope with anxious feelings can actually make you feel more anxious.

When it comes to alcohol and depression, the relationship is also bi-directional. “A person may have signs or symptoms of depression and drink to make themselves feel better,” she notes. “But also, alcohol consumption in excess can also lead to depression.” 

Binge Drinking and Your Mental Health

Woman thinking about alcohol consumption

We’ve all heard the term binge drinking but when it comes to alcohol consumption and mental health, it’s a really important point to get your head around. The definition of binge drinking is 6 standard drinks at any one time. “The binging is more likely to cause depression than the frequency,” Marie explains. “Our Index shows that 20% of us binge drink on a weekly basis.”

Low-Risk Guidelines

Marie advises getting to know and following the HSE low-risk guidelines. Only 2% of us know what these guidelines are. Here’s the breakdown: 
Men: Up to 17 standard drinks spread out over one week, with at least two alcohol-free days.
Women: Up to 11 standard drinks spread out over one week, with at least two alcohol-free days.

Tips for Cutting Back 

Friends enjoying a meal

If you’re thinking of reducing your alcohol intake, Marie shares the following simple tips:

Be aware of drink size: “A pint of beer is two standard drinks but an average bottle of beer is 1 standard drink. So, if you’re in the pub with your mates, drinking a bottle or half bottle is better than drinking a pint.”

Try alcohol-free alternatives: “There are a lot more alcohol-free beers out now and they taste a lot better too.” Marie says. “Keep some in the fridge, particularly around Christmas time, to give yourself another option.”

Measure: “A standard glass of wine is 100mls. But a quarter bottle is 2 standard drinks,” Marie explains. “So people think they’ve only had one wine when they’ve actually had two. When you’re at home we would always recommend that people measure out wine and spirits instead of free pouring.”

Don’t top-up: “Don’t top up your wine glass and don’t let waiters top up your wine glass. You’ve got a bottomless glass then!” 

Alternate with water: “If you’re out for dinner, have water with your meal as well as the wine. If you arrive at the pub and you’re thirsty, have a glass of water first.”

For more tips and resources check out drinkaware.ie. Where you can also order a free standard measure cup which will help you get to know what a measure looks like.