If you’re worried about or experiencing severe anxiety after getting sober, this article is for you. Drinking alcohol can have two effects on your anxiety levels: it can worsen your existing anxiety or cause you to feel more anxious when you’re sober.
This short blog offers eight practical ways to help you navigate severe anxiety after getting sobriety. We also explore how alcohol can impact pre-existing anxiety disorders and shed light on why the body responds to sobriety.
How Does Alcohol Affect Anxiety?
Alcohol acts as an anxiolytic and can temporarily alleviate anxiety symptoms. People with anxiety disorders, such as general or social anxiety, sometimes use alcohol to escape their thoughts and feelings.
However, despite these initial calming effects, the long-term consequences of using alcohol as a coping mechanism can be detrimental. When people feel anxious and have no healthy ways of calming themselves down, they turn to something they know will calm their nerves for the moment. But excessive alcohol use can quickly become alcohol dependence and make it challenging to function without drinking. As the dependence builds up, it makes it harder and hard to quit drinking, and the body can subconsciously become afraid of getting sober to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
If they do quit drinking alcohol, individuals can experience heightened anxiety, especially when considering factors like dehydration, alterations in brain functioning (including serotonin levels), and insufficient sleep, all of which can exacerbate anxiety and other mental health issues.
Typical Anxiety-Alcohol Cycle
This cycle can end up looking like this:
- You feel anxious and drink.
- You feel calm as alcohol affects your brain.
- You feel anxious when the alcohol starts to wear off.
- You drink again to relieve the new wave of anxiety, repeating the cycle.
Read more: How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?
Why Do You Feel Anxious After Getting Sober?
If you want to understand why you experience severe anxiety after you stop drinking, it’s helpful to know what causes PAWS (post-acute withdrawal syndrome). PAWS is more common in those with extreme alcohol addictions, presenting itself with both physical and mental symptoms, including severe anxiety. Not all individuals experience PAWS or severe anxiety, but those who do can struggle with cravings if they think alcohol will relieve their anxiety or panic attacks.
Here are a few factors that can cause you to feel severe anxiety after getting sober.
- Changes in brain chemistry: Alcohol dependence and addiction significantly alter the brain’s structure and chemistry. When alcohol is consumed, it causes a surge of dopamine, which eventually disrupts the brain’s natural production of dopamine and endorphins. When your body realizes it has to produce its own feel-good chemicals again, it can panic and make staying sober difficult.
- Stress response: Alcohol use disorder affects both the central and peripheral nervous systems. It heightens the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the fight or flight response. During PAWS, a chronic stress response can be triggered, making it difficult to handle normal stress levels during early recovery stages.
- Loss of coping tool: Becoming sober means losing access to the coping mechanism previously used to manage anxiety. For some individuals, their reliance on alcohol as a way to deal with stress and anxiety contributed to the development of alcoholism. Once they are sober, their pre-existing anxiety can resurface without the numbing effects of alcohol.
8 Ways To Get Through Severe Anxiety During Sobriety
Without alcohol, anxiety can seem scary to feel or process. We’ve compiled eight effective ways to overcome severe anxiety during alcohol withdrawal. These tips are also beneficial coping mechanisms for other substance use disorders.
Accept your anxiety
Sometimes, simply saying “I feel anxious” out loud can help you make sense of the overwhelming physical sensations and racing thoughts that come with anxiety. It allows you to acknowledge and put a name to what you’re experiencing. Remember, anxiety is just a feeling, and believing it will eventually pass can help restore balance. If you think your anxiety is more than just panic attacks, talk to a professional to determine if you have an anxiety disorder. Once you have a name for a mental health condition, you can start taking steps to treat and manage your symptoms.
Express your anxious feelings
One of the worst things you can do for anxiety is to keep it hidden and pretend it doesn’t exist. When we try to ignore or suppress anxiety, it only grows stronger. This becomes even more crucial when you’re navigating sobriety alongside anxiety. Reach out and talk to someone when you’re anxious, even if you think it’s something small or insignificant. Sharing your feelings and concerns with someone brings them into the open and makes them easier to handle. Giving a voice to your anxiety makes it more manageable, and you might even receive helpful advice or support that can make a difference.
Meditation is a powerful practice that can bring about significant changes. Despite its simplicity, some people may doubt its effectiveness, while others appreciate its profound nature. The great thing about meditation is that it doesn’t need to be perfect. You can start anywhere, with whatever you have available – even if it means sitting on the floor with background noise and closed eyes. If you have a smartphone, try using meditation apps that offer guided sessions, soothing music, and meditations focused on substance abuse recovery. Dedicating just one minute a day to meditation can help you relax, reflect, and find calm during moments of anxiety.
Yoga offers soothing and healing effects in various ways. It often incorporates meditation as well. By engaging in yoga, you can calm anxiety through chants, deep breathing, gentle stretching, and other comforting techniques. Some yoga programs focus on recovery, combining traditional yoga movements with principles of 12-step programs and recovery. Through regular practice, individuals may develop a deeper understanding of their emotions and thought patterns, leading to increased emotional resilience and the ability to manage anxiety with healthy coping skills.
Try grounding exercises
One helpful grounding technique that many people with anxiety find useful is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. These five steps can help you ground yourself in the present moment and divert your attention away from anxious thoughts. Just going through the first three steps can often bring relief and make you feel better.
- First, take a moment to acknowledge five things you can see around you. Look for objects or people that catch your attention.
- Second, focus on four things you can touch or feel. It could be the texture of a surface, the warmth of your hands, or the softness of a fabric.
- Third, pay attention to three things you can hear in your environment. These should be external sounds, like birds chirping or the hum of traffic.
- Next, notice two things you can smell. Take a deep breath and identify the scents around you, whether it’s the aroma of coffee, fresh air, or a fragrant flower.
- Lastly, bring your attention to one thing you can taste. It could be a sip of water, a bite of food, or the lingering taste of toothpaste.
Find healthy distractions and hobbies
Finding healthy ways to distract yourself is a great approach to dealing with anxiety without self-medicating with alcohol. If you have relied on alcohol and drugs as a means of distraction in the past, it’s important to discover new, healthier alternatives. Otherwise, your mind and body can panic if it’s left without coping skills or relief.
- Engaging in exercise is a beneficial way to divert your attention and release endorphins, which can boost your mood.
- Activities like writing, reading, listening to podcasts, or creating art are also effective distractions.
- You can also cook, watch a show, movie, play, or do any other activity that captures your heart and mind until the anxiety subsides.
While distraction can be helpful, it’s equally important to address the root causes of your anxiety and explore ways to prevent it. Taking the time to reflect on what may be causing your anxiety and discussing it with others is essential for your overall well-being.
Read more: 10 Mental Wellness Tips During The Holidays
Go to support meetings
Being in a room with peers who have experienced early recovery and dealt with anxiety can bring a sense of comfort. Support groups like alcoholics anonymous allow you to openly discuss your experiences and learn from others who have found effective strategies. While their approaches may not always work for everyone, there’s a chance that you might find valuable insights and techniques that resonate with you.
Building relationships and engaging in conversations about anxiety are important steps in your recovery journey. It allows you to receive support, gain new perspectives, and explore healthy ways to navigate the challenges of anxiety.
Find an addiction treatment focusing on co-occurring disorders
Alcohol addiction programs can support individuals as they navigate alcohol withdrawal and severe anxiety. When people seek help for their addiction, they gain access to professional guidance and support tailored to their needs, including treatment plans that focus on treating substance use and enabling mental health disorders. Detox professionals can closely monitor the individual’s symptoms and provide necessary interventions to manage discomfort or complications, including PAWs and severe anxiety.
Once they’ve safely gone through the detox phase, behavioral health specialists can provide a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses the physical and psychological aspects of alcohol abuse and anxiety through behavioral therapy like CBT or DBT.
Contact Launch Centers
If you or a loved one is struggling with severe anxiety during or after getting sober, contact Launch Centers in Los Angeles, California. Our addiction treatment center has all the tools to work through panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and alcohol addiction. Young adults are heavily impacted by social pressures and anxious feelings. Launch Centers’ goal is to help our clients find healthy coping skills, leave addiction in the past, and move toward recovery, happiness, and wellness.