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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Stress and Alcohol


'She drove me to drink' used to be a popular phrase. Its essential meaning is that stress induces people to consume alcohol. While it's true that stress can be an incentive to drink, it's equally true that heavy alcohol consumption causes stress.
Moderate alcohol intake, to be sure, can have beneficial effects. Research suggests that small amounts can even improve mental functioning and increase performance in problem solving while stressed. But, there are also studies that demonstrate that large quantities, particularly when consumed for long periods, actually worsens stress.
Large alcohol consumption stimulates the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. One result is an increase in the amount of cortisol produced within the body. Another is an increase in adrenaline. Both those, while they don't alone cause stress, play a large role in the symptoms.
Extreme stress makes it more difficult to concentrate. One of the obvious effects of high alcohol intake is to produce that exact effect. Thus, heavy drinkers get a double whammy just at the moment they need mental clarity most.
Other studies suggest that chronic drinkers have symptoms similar to those seen in children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Children of those drinkers, this research concludes, have a higher incidence of actual ADHD.
So, it may also be true that as much as the stress of parenting may lead to drinking, adult drinking may encourage the circumstances that entice the parent to drink. It may be a factor in producing children's symptoms that lead to adult stress.
Exercise is known to help relieve the symptoms of stress. Unfortunately, one of the additional results of excessive alcohol consumption is decreased exercise. Few inebriated people want to go a few rounds on the weight machine.
Similarly, high alcohol intake suppresses appetite. Thus, at the same time alcoholic drinks pour in the calories, they decrease the incentive to maintain a healthy diet. Once again the drinker experiences a doubly negative reinforcing effect.
Those who drink excessively to escape stress motivated by money concerns find it more difficult to cope with the problem that caused the stress in the first place. Even simple tasks like balancing a checkbook are clearly more difficult when drunk. But beyond such minor details, the cognitive functions needed to develop long term strategies are impaired. Drinkers literally can't think their way out of the problems causing the stress.
In all these cases there is a vicious cycle established. Stress encourages heavy drinking, which makes it more difficult to deal with the internal and external factors that led to stress in the first place. Though the specific numbers will vary from person to person, when the average individual drinks more than the equivalent of two or three shots of whiskey per day, the results are inevitably bad.
The key to breaking this vicious cycle is to seek alternative methods for dealing with stress. Both the symptoms and the underlying motivators are subject to change in almost all cases. Proper exercise and diet is a good beginning. A realistic attitude about life's inherent challenges can go a long way, as well. But, as with any psychological problem, admitting it exists is the first necessary step.

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