Why You Feel Anxious When You Stop Drinking

If you feel anxious after cutting out alcohol, that’s incredibly common, and even to be expected. Before we dive into the scientific reasons behind why anxiety is common in early sobriety, know that your anxiety can be addressed and managed without alcohol, and that you’re not alone. 

In summary, there are two key reasons you may be feeling especially anxious when you stop drinking: 

  1. You might have already had baseline anxiety. You may have been using alcohol to manage existing anxiety because you didn’t have the tools in your toolkit to address it in healthier ways. 
  2. Your brain is in recovery mode. Long-term alcohol use affects your brain’s ability to regulate emotions without it, and when you stop drinking, it takes time for your brain to re-learn how to function without alcohol.

Using Alcohol To Cope with 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 Monument’s 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 removing alcohol as our coping mechanism, it’s important to get a new anxiety-management tool in the toolbelt to replace it. 

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. 

 

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Why Does Quitting Alcohol Make You Anxious?

In addition to the presence of baseline anxiety, there’s a physiological reason why quitting drinking can make you anxious at first. Here’s a helpful analogy: imagine the central nervous system as a highway. It’s constantly racing with electric signals that pass through our brain and throughout our body to do every function we need to survive. We also have a special neurotransmitter system that functions as ‘brakes’ to help slow down racing signals. Our body naturally balances our need to send these signals with the need to regulate them.

When we drink alcohol, we add more brakes to our highway. We feel more sedated, and have a harder time accomplishing tasks. With long-term alcohol use, our brain realizes that we’re turning the brakes up with alcohol, and starts turning down its natural brakes to stay in balance.  Over time, we lose our natural brakes and ability to moderate racing signals without drinking. This is a sign of physiological dependence on alcohol. 

When we stop drinking, we are left without any breaks — natural or alcohol-induced. 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. 

How Long Does Anxiety Last After You Quit Drinking?

The good news is, our brain can restore its natural brakes. For many, anxiety levels can improve within three weeks without drinking. For those experiencing post-acute withdrawal syndrome (or ‘PAWS’), it may take more time. This is because PAWS symptoms often include longer-lasting anxiety and irritability as the brain recovers from the negative effects of alcohol. You can check out the alcohol recovery timeline to learn more about acute and post-acute withdrawal symptoms. Regardless of your timeline, relief is within reach. Alcohol’s depressive qualities intensify anxiety and depression, and removing it from your life is shown to improve your mental wellbeing.  

If anxiety symptoms persist after several months sober, you may have an underlying anxiety condition. Working with a therapist is a great way to address co-occurring anxiety and develop healthier coping mechanisms. With time and support, anxiety can be mitigated.  

How to Manage Anxiety When You Stop Drinking

There are many tools you can use to help manage anxiety in early sobriety and beyond. These same tools can also be beneficial in managing alcohol cravings and persevering through setbacks. 

Practice mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness describes the process of grounding yourself in the present moment and staying focused on what’s really true. Mindfulness can help you clarify your goals, reroute negative thoughts, and feel more at peace. Incorporating mindfulness into your day can also help reduce acute anxiety and prevent anxiety spikes in the future. Meditation is a popular mindfulness practice that helps you become aware of your thoughts and surroundings by sitting still and observing what occurs. Trying guided meditation is a great way to get started with mindfulness. 

Here are a few other ways you can practice mindfulness:

"7 ways to practice mindfulness everyday (without actually meditating) focus on your feet touching the ground as you walk, do 5 minutes of "stream of consciousness" journaling, practice eating slowly and without distractions, look up at the sky and watch how it changes, notice the air entering and leaving as you breathe, choose a muscle, tense it, then release (and repeat), pay attention to how the water feels while showering" Monument logo

Reach out to a therapist

Working with a therapist is one of the best things you can do to manage anxiety. Therapy can help you identify your triggers, restructure negative thought patterns, and learn new coping skills through methods like motivational interviewing and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). In therapy with Monument, you get matched with a therapist specialized in using these tools to help people change their relationship with alcohol and minimize anxiety simultaneously.

Explore stress-relieving activities

Finding hobbies and fun alcohol-free activities can be a great way to release anxious energy. These activities may involve other people, or can be self-care practices you do alone, such as taking a bath, practicing yoga, or reading. Even taking a light walk when you notice anxious thoughts can make a huge difference. The key is to find a calming activity that can help break the cycle of anxiety. 

Seek peer support

Trying to tackle anxiety alone can be … anxiety-inducing! Sharing our experience with trusted friends and family can help lessen the weight of anxious thoughts and strip them of their power. Talking with others who have similar experiences after quitting alcohol can also be a powerful resource. At Monument, you can join free therapist-moderated alcohol support groups and get encouragement and tips from others. Many of these groups are focused specifically on managing anxiety while in recovery. 

Can Quitting Drinking Help My Anxiety?

While quitting alcohol can lead to increased anxiety in the short-term, it’s one of the best things you can do to help minimize anxiety in the long-term. When you stop drinking, you can say goodbye to hangxiety and shame about what you may have said or done when under the influence. Plus, without the influence of alcohol, you’re able to take actions as your truest self, which leads to an increased sense of confidence and self-worth. If you struggle with underlying anxiety, removing alcohol can help you focus on developing healthier and more effective strategies for coping. Overall, quitting or cutting back on drinking can have a tremendous positive impact on your mental health. 

The early days of sobriety can be very challenging, but you can get through them. With time and 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. Join Monument today to get connected with an expert Care Team and encouraging community who will support you along your journey.

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.

Sources:

  1. University of Pennsylvania. “Cognitive-behavioral therapy for adult anxiety disorders in clinical practice: A meta-analysis of effectiveness studies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19634954/.” Accessed Nov 18, 2020. 
  2. Brown University. “Cognitive-behavioral treatment with adult alcohol and illicit drug users: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19515291/.” Accessed Nov 18, 2020. 
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.

About the Author

Randy SmithBased in Portland, OR, Randy works on the marketing team at Monument managing all things content.