If you’re feeling anxious in the first few months of sobriety, that is incredibly common, and even to be expected. Here are two key reasons why taking those first important steps toward changing your drinking may bring high levels of anxiety. And before you dive in, know that anxiety can be addressed and managed, and what you’re going through is entirely normal.
Existing baseline anxiety
Alcohol is an anxiolytic, or an anxiety (anxio-) stopper (-lytic). And it’s effective. While it’s not a healthy coping mechanism, alcohol does soothe anxiety in the short term. However, your mind and body ultimately pay the price. As our medical advisor James Besante, MD, shares, “Many times people are self-medicating to treat baseline anxiety with alcohol. For some people that’s the best tool they have in their toolbelt. I never fault my patients for using alcohol to treat anxiety because anxiety can be debilitating.”
However, to live your healthiest and fullest life, Dr. Besante recommends finding alternate coping mechanisms. When getting sober, you might have to confront the reasons you started drinking. Anxiety in early recovery is often baseline anxiety that existed before developing unhealthy drinking habits and getting sober. When we’re removing alcohol, it’s important to get a new tool in the toolbelt.
While it will be uncomfortable, sitting with those anxious feelings is a big part of growth in your journey. And with time and support, they can be managed. Check out our resources for tips for managing anxiety. You can also connect with a therapist on the Monument platform who will build a personalized alcohol therapy program to help you address anxiety, and build healthier habits.
The highway analogy – why quitting alcohol makes you anxious
In addition to the existence of baseline anxiety, there’s a physiological reason why quitting drinking makes us anxious. Our central nervous system is incredibly complex. It’s a highway of electric signals that pass through our brain and throughout our body to do every function we need to live. It’s a live wire of electrical signals. We have a special neurotransmitter system that work as ‘brakes’ to help control this highway. Our body naturally balances our need to send these signals with the need to use brakes on them.
Alcohol is a sedative. Drinking is like adding more brakes to our system. When we start to drink, we feel the brakes kicking in. We feel more sedated, and have a harder time accomplishing tasks. And our body reacts to get to a steady state. Our brain realizes that we’re turning the breaks up by drinking, and starts to get rid of the natural breaks over time. We lose the normal ability to moderate these signals by replacing the natural moderator with alcohol. This is a sign of physiological dependence on alcohol.
Addressing anxiety while managing your drinking
When we stop drinking, we are left without any breaks — natural or manufactured. So it is very common to feel those racing thoughts at full speed: restlessness, anxiety, panic, and more. That’s where the more intensified anxiety comes from.
The good news is, our brain can restore its natural breaks. And for those experiencing acute withdrawal, this can happen in only a matter of days. For those experiencing post-acute withdrawal, it can take weeks or months. You can read more about acute and post-acute withdrawal symptoms and what to expect when quitting alcohol cold turkey.
In summary, there are two key reasons you may be feeling especially anxious, and both are valid, common, and addressable:
- You might have already had baseline anxiety. You were using alcohol to manage it because you didn’t have the tools in your toolkit to address it. We’re here to connect you with a Care Team to build better tools. You can do this!
- Physiologically, stopping alcohol causes anxiety. Your natural brain moderation has been affected by alcohol, and your brain is in recovery. And it will recover.
The early days of sobriety can be very challenging, but you can get through them. With time and holistic support, it will get easier. Your body will heal, and you will build healthier coping habits that diminish the importance of alcohol in your life. You will feel better, armed with better coping practices than you had before. In addition to connecting with a Care Team we encourage you to join a free therapist-moderated support group. Many others are experiencing this too. We’re in this together.
If you believe you might be experiencing acute alcohol withdrawal, please contact your healthcare provider immediately and visit https://findtreatment.gov/ to find a location to get supervised detox near you. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.
Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.