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Alcohol, Motherhood and Mental Health

An extract from Love Yourself Sober:

Motherhood, alcohol, and mental health

There are many reasons why we mothers can begin to use alcohol (or other things) in an unhelpful way. What we have learned by talking to a lot of women is that there are clear links for many people between past trauma, problematic use of alcohol or other things, and mental ill health.

Monday 3rd – Sunday 9th May 2021 is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, with the 5th May being World Maternal Mental Health Day.  Week http://maternalmentalhealthalliance.org/news/maternal-mental-health-awareness-week-2021/

In this blog we wanted to highlight what we have learned about the relationship between alcohol, depression and anxiety. People who have experienced trauma, as with those who live with mental illnesses or have developed maladaptive behaviour or addiction, are particularly susceptible to the damage done by alcohol, so this conversation is incredibly important.

The transition to motherhood can be a catalyst for many problems – the tiredness, stress, and mental juggle can lead to fatigue, anxiety, and social isolation, and this can exacerbate underlying mental health issues. And although problems such as post-natal depression are more widely acknowledged these days, such issues can still go undiagnosed, and we have a long way to go as a society to support mothers and families to cope with the transition to parenthood.

The heady mixture of motherhood, and mental health issues seems to be the perfect conditions for the Wine Witch to exploit and she often takes it upon herself to move in, unpack her bag of sh**, and start populating our thoughts with negativity, shame, and regret at such times.

It is pretty widely known that around one in four people in the western world experience a mental health problem each year, and the connection between mental health and alcohol is beginning to be discussed. Dr Andrew McCulloch, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation charity in the UK, states that ‘the reasons we drink and the consequences of excessive drinking are intimately linked with our mental health, and this holds the key to dealing with growing worries about alcohol misuse.’

It is important, therefore, to identify some of the most common mental health issues that can lie behind the bottle for some of us.

Depression and , anxiety are significant factors we have noticed or experienced in our own journeys in understanding why we drank, so we’d like to talk a bit about them.

Alcohol and anxiety

We can be forgiven for thinking that booze helps us to deal with anxiety and depressive thoughts and, indeed, it’s pretty socially acceptable to drink to help you relax or overcome feelings of depression. We have grown up seeing it on TV, in films, and in our real lives. The reality is very different. Scientists classify alcohol (ethanol) as a Central Nervous System depressant, meaning that it slows down brain functioning and neural activity. Alcohol does this by enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which makes us feel calmer and less socially anxious. However, scientific research shows us that self-medicating with alcohol to combat anxiety can become self-perpetuating.

The term ‘hangxiety’ describes the increase in anxious feelings after drinking. Many of us have used alcohol to make us feel calmer. However, after three or four drinks, as well as enhancing the effects of GABA, alcohol also starts blocking glutamate, the main ‘excitatory’ transmitter in the brain. The more glutamate you have, the more anxious you are, so blocking this may sound good, but when the body registers the imbalance between glutamate and GABA it attempts to put it right. This is explained by Professor David Nutt in his article in the Guardian on Hangxiety. ‘When you are drunk, your body goes on a mission to bring GABA levels down to normal and turn glutamate back up. When you stop drinking, therefore, you end up with unnaturally low GABA function and a spike in glutamate – a situation that leads to anxiety’.

It can take days for the levels in the brain to balance, therefore we feel ‘the fear’ or ‘hangxiety’ due to this spike in glutamate, and then we tend to feel more anxious and need more alcohol to ‘numb’ it. In the long term, this can lead to becoming tolerant of alcohol – that is, needing increasingly large amounts of drink to experience the same reduction in our anxiety. It is also difficult to maintain exactly the amount of alcohol needed to reduce the negative feelings. Keeping the optimum balance to reduce anxiety is almost impossible because the effect of alcohol on the brain is such that after the initial ‘euphoria’ from the first drink, alcohol acts as a depressant and feelings of anxiety may rapidly return.

 As writer Laura McKowen so accurately wrote, ‘Alcohol poured gasoline on my anxiety.’ If you already have a tendency to anxiety, drinking is only going to exacerbate that the morning after the night before.

What’s worse is that the anxiety tends to hit while you are sleeping off the effects of alcohol. This explains the telltale 3 am wake-up with an impaired memory, racing heart, sweaty skin, and regret, which is the pattern for so many of us who develop a problematic relationship with booze – and if our sleep is poor, this is a significant contributory factor in poor mental health.

Professor Nutt’s article also explains that imbalances in GABA and glutamate are not the only problem. Alcohol causes a small rise in noradrenaline – known as the fight-or-flight hormone. Noradrenaline suppresses stress when you first take it, but increases it in withdrawal, so severe anxiety can be considered a surge of noradrenaline in the brain.

In addition to affecting GABA and glutamate, alcohol releases dopamine – the neurotransmitter chemical responsible for pleasure and reward. This causes people to drink even more in an attempt to increase those feel-good feelings that dopamine produces, which can lead to addiction.

Alcohol and depression

Regular drinking changes the chemistry of the brain and inhibits the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin – the brain chemical implicated in depression. This leads to the cyclical process of drinking to relieve depression, becoming more depressed as levels of serotonin become more inhibited, and then needing even more alcohol to medicate the depression.

Increased alcohol consumption can also affect social relationships and work life in many negative ways, which in turn can contribute to depression. Drinking alcohol amplifies our emotional state. It can exaggerate low and depressed feelings. It also inhibits our brain’s control centre, which explains why people seem to get out of control
– angry, sad, euphoric, or violent when they have been drinking.

So, yeah… Maybe for a lot of us alcohol isn’t the fun friend it’s made out to be?

 

Seeking help

If anything in this article raises issues that are challenging you and your sobriety, please seek support. Some things are too big to face alone, but you are not alone and there is no shame in struggling. We have both worked with therapy, medication, and other support systems in our sober journeys. We recognise that therapy is expensive – if necessary, do explore low-cost options through charities and your GP.

There is ALOT to be said about mental health, stress, trauma and the interplay with our coping strategies, but we hope this gives you atleast an insight into how alcohol interacts with our brain and how that in turn impacts our mental health.

Articles referenced:
Cornah, D., 2006. Cheers? Understanding The Relationship Between Alcohol And Mental Health. London: Mental Health Foundation.
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jan/27/hangxiety-why-alcohol-gives-you-a-hangover-and-anxiety
https://www.lauramckowen.com/blog/2018/9/19/drinking-alcohol-is-like-pouring-gasoline-on-your-anxiety

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