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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 Does Stress Change Your Brain and Your Drinking Habits?

Stress and alcohol are closely related, and the connection begins deep inside the brain.

When we experience stress or consume alcohol, a specific area of the brain called the hypothalamus, particularly its paraventricular nucleus (PVN), gets activated. This activation leads to the release of two chemicals: corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and vasopressin. These act as messengers, traveling to the pituitary gland. 

The pituitary, receiving these signals, then secretes another hormone called adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). ACTH, in turn, stimulates the adrenal glands located above our kidneys. 

Finally, the adrenal glands release stress hormones, primarily cortisol, into the bloodstream. This surge of cortisol throughout the body ultimately amplifies our overall stress response.

Researchers explain that alcohol can alleviate stress, and at the same time, it makes us feel stressed.

What Are the Early Warning Signs of Stress-Induced Alcohol Use?

If you’re worried about stress and alcohol use, learning to spot the signs of problem drinking could be helpful.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says the following questions could help doctors identify problem drinking:

  • Have you consumed more alcohol or ended up drinking longer than you intended?
  • Have you tried to quit drinking but couldn’t?
  • Have you spent a lot of time drinking, recovering from drinking, or being sick from drinking?
  • Have you wanted to drink so badly that you couldn’t think of anything else?
  • Have you found that drinking causes problems at home or work?
  • Have you kept drinking even though it caused problems?
  • Have you given up on activities you found important so you could drink?
  • Have you done something dangerous (like swimming or driving) while drinking?
  • Have you kept drinking although it made you feel depressed or anxious?

The more time you answer positively, the more severe the issue might be.

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 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. 

How Is Alcohol Abuse Treated?

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


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

Behavioral therapies are considered evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders like alcoholism. Several options are available, including the following:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This form of therapy helps people to modify their behaviors and improve their coping skills. People drinking due to stress might use this therapy to help them identify stress triggers and cope without drinking.
  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET): This form of therapy helps people strengthen their willingness to stop drinking. Your therapist might help you explore why you think drinking eases stress and how it might harm you instead.
  • Family therapy: This type of treatment can help you address issues the drinking might have caused within your family. Your therapist might help you and your family explore sources of stress within the household.
  • Contingency management: This form of therapy can help you tie a reward to something that doesn’t involve drinking. Your therapist might give you a reward like a gym membership for a specific number of sober days.

Therapy may be used alongside medication 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.

What Can You Try Instead of Alcohol?

The relationship between stress and alcohol is both complicated and harmful. Instead of using substances to deal with your triggers, you could try more helpful methods.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following healthy ways to reduce stress levels:

  • Care for your body. Eat healthy, well-balanced meals. Exercise regularly. Ensure that you get enough sleep every night.
  • Care for your mind. Limit the time you spend looking at screens (like your phone or computer). Instead, participate in hobbies you enjoy or try something new.
  • Connect with others. Talk to people you love and trust about how you’re feeling. You might lean on family and friends, or you could connect with a faith-based organization.

If you can’t get relief from these steps, talk to a professional and get help from a treatment program.

Updated May 3, 2024
  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.
  10. Influence of Stress Associated with Chronic Alcohol Exposure on Drinking. (April 2017). Neuropharmacology.
  11. Alcohol’s Effects on Health. (January 2024). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  12. Coping with Stress. (November 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  13. Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. (November 2016). Office of the Surgeon General.
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