Are we in denial?
“I wasn’t dependent on alcohol. It was just easier to reach for alcohol than to deal with my issues,” says Stacy Paulse* (36), a TV content producer. Paulse says she would drink, on average, two to three bottles of wine on her own in a work week. Asked if she thinks she had a drinking problem, her answer is simple: “Never. I think it made me feel better, that’s why I kept doing it when I’d had a bad day — which was often.” Using alcohol to mask her emotions is something that financial services professional Thando Khumalo* (27) has in common with Paulse. On average, Khumalo says she would drink three to four times a week, with at least one of those times being excessive. “I didn’t necessarily drink to feel better, but rather not to feel at all,” she explains. But the remedy was short-lived, she says, adding that it only worked while she was drunk.
While both women say they rarely felt hungover after consuming large quantities of alcohol this frequently, they felt guilt and anxiety the next day. “It was probably easy to finish a bottle on my own in one evening because I was never really hungover the next morning. But by the time I woke up, I would always feel that I must stop drinking like that,” Paulse says.
A vicious cycle
The problem faced by people who use alcohol to mask feelings of anxiety, depression or stress is that alcohol is a depressant. While it might make you feel better in the moment, it will often leave you feeling worse in the long run. According to aware.org, alcohol can disrupt the chemical balance in your brain, affecting the neurotransmitters that help send signals through your brain and having negative effects on your thoughts, actions, and feelings. It can sometimes have a lasting impact on your long-term mental health. After one or two drinks, you may feel less anxious because the alcohol is depressing the part of the brain that controls your feelings of inhibition. But more drinks can lead you to become angry, aggressive, anxious, or depressed. Regular drinking also lowers the levels of serotonin in your brain. This is the chemical that helps to regulate your mood. Long-term effects of low serotonin levels include anxiety, depression, panic attacks, insomnia, obesity, chronic pain, migraines, and low self-esteem.