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Stress & Alcohol Abuse

A variety of stressors, many of which may occur early in life, and general stress can lead to people abusing alcohol to cope. Consuming alcohol can itself cause stress. Further alcohol intake in these situations can lead to alcohol use disorder.

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Key Facts

  • According to a 2012 study, adults who said they felt more stress in a given year were found to drink more than those who said they felt lower levels of stress in the same year.
  • Another study found that stress does not lead people to drink more often, but it does lead people to drink more in instances when they do drink.

What Are the Signs of Stress & Alcohol Abuse? 

Alcohol use disorder, otherwise known as alcohol abuse, is marked by a continual and unhealthy intake of alcohol, and a dependence on the substance. According to a 2019 study, alcohol use disorder may be present in over 5 percent of American adults, making it a common problem in the country.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the following signs may lead to a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder:

  • Drinking larger amounts than originally intended
  • Drinking for longer than originally intended
  • Inability to stop or decrease drinking
  • Excessive time spent recovering from drinking
  • Craving alcohol more than anything else
  • Alcohol interfering with school, work, or home life
  • Passing up important activities to drink
  • Placing yourself in dangerous situations due to drinking
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, difficulty sleeping, or tremors after stopping alcohol use
  • Building up a high tolerance to alcohol
  • Drinking even though it worsens another problem or causes stress or anxiety

According to the UK’s National Health Services, the following are signs of stress:

If you deal with both alcohol abuse and high levels of stress, it’s important to treat both issues simultaneously.

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle pains or tension
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Pain in your chest
  • Increased heart rate
  • Trouble with concentration
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Difficulty with decision-making abilities
  • Memory problems
  • Irritability
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Increased drinking or drug use

If you believe your stress is contributing to an increase in drinking, contact a medical professional to receive help immediately.

How Are Stress & Addiction Related?

The relationship between stress and alcohol use can be bilateral. In some cases, stress can lead people to drink more, but drinking can also lead to increased levels of stress.

While stress in general is difficult to evaluate, there are specific life situations that lead to increased stress. According to a 2008 study, these serious and traumatic events may lead to increased possibility of drug addiction, including alcohol use disorder:

  • Death of a parent, family member, partner, or close friend
  • Divorce of parents
  • Being isolated or abandoned
  • Living apart from parents early in life
  • Death or loss of a child
  • Serious relationship problems, such as being cheated on
  • Losing your house
  • Being the target of or witness to a violent attack
  • Living through a natural disaster
  • Being physically or sexually abuse
  • Difficulty controlling behavior or emotions

If a person experiences one or more of these traumatic experiences, their approach toward drinking may change for the worse. Drinking behavior may not change immediately following a traumatic event, and trauma early in life can lead to unhealthy drinking habits later in life.

Another study found that stress does not lead people to drink more often, but it does lead people to drink more in instances when they do drink. This behavior may eventually lead to alcohol use disorder if it persists.

According to a 2012 study, adults who said they felt more stress in a given year were found to drink more than those who said they felt lower levels of stress in the same year.

For those recovering from alcohol use disorder or experiencing withdrawal symptoms from alcohol use disorder, stress may lead to an increase in alcohol cravings. Consequently, high stress levels can lead to relapse. 

Signs Stress May Be Contributing to Alcohol Use

Some people increase their alcohol intake after experiencing a traumatic event or during periods of high stress. If you find yourself drinking more during these times, your stress may be what is contributing to your increased alcohol use.

If you feel as though you need alcohol to escape or deal with your stress, contact a medical professional or addiction treatment specialist immediately. This activity could lead to alcohol use disorder. It should be addressed in a safe and effective manner to prevent this progression.

How Is Alcohol Abuse Treated?

Treatment for alcohol use disorder generally takes three forms: pharmaceutical, behavioral therapy, and support groups.

Medications

There are three primary, FDA-approved medications that are prescribed to help patients dealing with alcohol use disorder.

  • Naltrexone: This medication functions by binding to endorphin receptors in the body. When a person consumes alcohol while on naltrexone, they will not feel any effect.
  • Acamprosate: This medication functions by decreasing cravings and treating alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
  • Disulfiram: This medication functions by creating uncomfortable effects, such as nausea, sweating, headaches, and more when alcohol is ingested. This is meant to encourage patients not to consume any amount of alcohol while taking the drug.

Behavioral Therapy

Many people dealing with alcohol use disorder may benefit from attending therapy to address their disorder. Therapy may address the underlying reasons for alcohol use, and it is especially effective in cases where stress is a motivator for alcohol use.

Therapy may be used alongside medication in order to provide the most effective and comprehensive treatment program for patients.

Support Groups

Support groups, run by associations such as Alcoholics Anonymous or smaller, local organizations, provide help in a group setting with people who are in recovery from alcohol use disorder.

These groups can be found in person, and they are generally affordable or free to join. In addition, there are a variety of support groups for alcohol addiction online, meaning they are accessible to nearly everyone.

When used alongside behavioral therapy and medication, support groups can play a vital role in recovery from alcohol use disorder.

The Need for Dual Diagnosis Treatment

If you deal with both alcohol abuse and high levels of stress, it’s important to treat both issues simultaneously. If you only address the alcohol abuse, it’s likely that you’ll relapse during times of high stress. 

In a comprehensive addiction treatment program, you can treat stress, alcohol abuse, and other mental health conditions, promoting your overall well-being. You’ll learn better methods to cope with stress and how to deal with triggers as they arise without turning to alcohol.

Updated November 30, 2023
Resources
  1. Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder. (April 2021). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  2. Stress. (October 2019). National Health Services.
  3. Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction. (October 2008). Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
  4. Effects of Stress on Alcohol Consumption. (2012). Alcohol Research.
  5. The Association Between Stress and Drinking: Modifying Effects of Gender and Vulnerability. (September-October 2005). Alcohol and Alcoholism.
  6. The Link Between Stress and Alcohol. (2012). Alcohol Alert.
  7. Naltrexone. (April 2022). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  8. Incorporating Alcohol Pharmacotherapies Into Medical Practice. (May 2013). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  9. Disulfiram. (November 2021). StatPearls.
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