While we all know excessive drinking is in no way good for us, many of us are hazy on the specifics. What’s actually happening to our bodies while we’re drinking, and how do they react after?
The first thing to keep in mind, says Rucha Lele, a psychologist at online mental health platform Lysn, is that alcohol affects everyone very differently.
“Some of the factors include your body weight, gender, rate and method of consumption of alcoholic drinks, whether or not you have eaten food before drinking, how hydrated you are, how much sleep you had and whether you have taken any other drugs, including prescription and over-the-counter medications,” she says.
With that in mind, here’s what can happen in your brain and to your mental health when you drink, according to Lele.
What Happens to Your Brain While You’re Drinking
As you probably know, if you’ve ever had a couple drinks of alcohol, initially, you can feel really good.
Alcohol increases the amount of dopamine — the neurotransmitter linked with pleasurable activities — in your brain, making you feel great while you are drinking, explains Lele. It may also lower your inhibitions, resulting in increased confidence, improved mood and decreased anxiety.
“Alcohol also reduces the amount of another neurotransmitter, glutamate, in the brain,” she says. “This results in the slowing of your thought processes and, in turn, bodily movements, sometimes making you more clumsy. Finally, alcohol increases the amount of GABA in the brain, making you calm and relaxed.”
So, what does this all translate to? Well, as mentioned, at the start of drinking alcohol, you may feel more calm and relaxed, feel your self-esteem and confidence increasing and generally feel happier. The more you continue to drink, the more your confidence may increase, leading you to take more risks and sometimes even exhibit violent behaviours.
“Unfortunately, because your reward centre is also activated, you may not necessarily realise the negative effects of how the alcohol is making you think, feel and behave ‘til the day after,” she says. “It’s also quite common for people to drink excessive amounts of alcohol for the pleasurable effects and, importantly, to reduce feelings of anxiety or stress.”
What Happens to Your Mental Health the Day After Drinking
If you’ve consumed alcohol responsibly, then the day after effects of alcohol on your mental health should be very limited, perhaps just some interesting memories, says Lele.
“However, if that wasn’t the case, the day after effects on mental health can include remorse, increased anxiety, irritability, reduced attention and concentration, reduced ability to handle stress, and perhaps the physiological effects of a hangover.”
What Happens to Your Mental Health a Few Days After Drinking
As for how excessive drinking affects your mental health a few days after the fact, Lele says this is dependent on what you did or said while drinking, and whether you continue to consume alcohol in the days after.
“Some people experience what’s known as ‘hangxiety’ after drinking, which often happens the next day, but can extend to a few days afterwards,” she says. “Hangxiety refers to the feelings you have after drinking, often resulting in embarrassment, panic, shame or obsessively going over events from the night before and trying to piece together what you should or shouldn’t have done.”
If you don’t consume alcohol in the following days, or even if you do but do it responsibly, then negative effects of alcohol would be minimal. However, if you excessively drink alcohol for the following days, then it may increase your avoidance of managing its effects, as well as have a negative effect on your mental health.
What Happens to Your Mental Health If You Regularly Excessively Drink
It should come as no surprise that regularly excessively drinking can have an immense impact on your life, according to Lele.
She says alcohol abuse can lead to loss of relationships, social impairments including difficulty maintaining social relationships, increased risk of motor vehicle accidents, breakdown of family, increased risk of numerous health issues, including diabetes, obesity, cancer, liver disease and heart disease.
“Alcohol abuse tends to impact almost all important domains of people’s lives, which can be extremely detrimental to mental health,” says Lele.
What Can You Do to Cope If Your Mental Health Declines Due to Drinking
Now that we know how alcohol affects our mental health, what can we do about it? While there are a few things you can do, one important thing Lele suggests is to seek help, whether that’s through your GP, a specialist or a psychologist, or even support from a friend first.
“It’s important to have someone who’s able to support you to change your unhealthy habits to healthier ones,” says Lele. “Monitor and reduce the amount of alcoholic drinks you consume if you are still drinking alcohol and ensure you are mindful of any changes in behaviour, particularly if they are to put you or others at risk.”
Another thing you can do is to consider meeting up with friends in places other than bars or pubs. If alcohol is usually how you engage socially with them, consider meeting elsewhere so that the focus changes from alcohol to something healthier.
Also, you’ll want to ensure that alcohol is not a way to cope with other mental health concerns such as stress or anxiety — if it is, consider speaking to a mental health professional to address these issues.
“Finally, look after yourself while drinking by staying hydrated and eating healthy food, and, remember, alcohol is to be enjoyed in moderation,” Lele says.