Alcohol, Prescription Medications, and Anxiety – The Connection Explained

The COVID pandemic has meant that Americans are living through unprecedented times. Isolation, quarantine, social distancing, financial difficulties, and unemployment are just some of the challenges we are facing, not to mention political strife, riots, and people getting sick and dying.

It’s not surprising that stress and anxiety levels have gone through the roof. A poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found nearly half of American adults feel the pandemic has affected their mental health. And 1 in 5 out of those surveyed said the impact on their mental health was “major.”1 What this means is an unusually high number of Americans are struggling with fear, anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep disturbance, or simply being on edge.

COVID and Alcohol Use

Many people are dealing with these emotions by reaching for easily accessible substances like alcohol and prescription drugs. Specifically, because it is socially acceptable, alcohol is increasingly being used to deal with the roller coaster of emotions associated with COVID. That people are relying more on alcohol during the pandemic is confirmed by skyrocketing alcohol sales. The market research firm Nielsen reported a 55% jump in the sale of alcoholic beverages in March.2 Online sales were up nearly 250% in March. Market watchers suspect this was because people were hoarding alcohol in preparation for stay-at-home orders.

COVID and Prescription Medications

The fact that COVID is having an impact on people’s mental health is also confirmed by the number of prescriptions filled for anti-anxiety, antidepressant, and anti-insomnia medications. In February and March, just as COVID was declared a pandemic, Express Scripts reported a 21% increase in prescriptions for anxiety medications.3

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s encouraging that Americans are seeking professional help for their mental health symptoms. But the problem arises when people start mixing alcohol and prescription anxiety medications. The combined use of alcohol and prescription medications complicates the diagnosis and management of anxiety and depression. It also dramatically increases the risk of accidental overdose and death.

Understanding Inter-dose Withdrawal

Many people who are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction are aware of the withdrawal symptoms one can experience when trying to quit. But less well-known is something called inter-dose withdrawal. The term refers to the mild withdrawal symptoms that people who have been abusing prescription medications or alcohol for a long time experience just before their next dose.

What makes inter-dose withdrawal particularly dangerous is that it can occur both with alcohol and benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety medications like Valium, Xanax, and Ativan). So, if someone’s anxiety is being treated with Xanax, they may experience some breakthrough anxiety just before it’s time for their next dose. They could potentially turn to alcohol to deal with their symptoms.

Now, alcohol is known to reduce anxiety in the short-term. Cocktail hour was invented to help people get over social anxiety, after all. However, the anti-anxiety effects of alcohol are short-lived. Over the long-term, self-medicating with alcohol for anxiety symptoms ends up causing more harm than good with severe anxiety between bouts of drinking.

The Dangers of Mixing Anti-Anxiety Medicines and Alcohol

Benzodiazepines and sleeping aids mixed with alcohol can be dangerous, even deadly. With the sales of both alcohol and anxiety meds increased simultaneously, it is a worrisome situation. Benzos and alcohol taken together have a synergistic effect, i.e., each substance enhances the effect of the other. Combined together, they can completely knock out the respiratory system, leading to slowed breathing, and in some cases, complete cessation of breathing. That’s how people accidentally die of overdoses. While it takes a large amount of alcohol and a massive overdose of sleeping pills to kill a person, alcohol and benzodiazepines together have a toxic interaction and can lead to death, which unfortunately happens far too often.4

Sleep, Anxiety, and Alcohol

When people say alcohol helps them sleep well, it is a false belief. While alcohol might help you fall asleep, it messes up the various phases of sleep that are important for a good night’s rest. An alcohol-induced sleep is poor quality sleep and you wake up feeling tired and worn out.

Good quality sleep is essential to maintaining mental health. Long periods of sleep deprivation or poor-quality sleep can worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression. And while sleep aids can help, they must be taken as prescribed.

As we get through these complicated times, it’s important not to self-medicate with alcohol for symptoms of anxiety and depression. And if you’re using benzodiazepines, always take them exactly as directed by your physician.

There are healthy ways to cope with the stress of COVID. Eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, meditating, and keeping busy with hobbies are all good coping strategies.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol or prescription drug addiction, we encourage you to get professional help at a Washington drug rehab. Experts in addiction treatment can create an individualized treatment plan that includes therapy for co-occurring anxiety or other mental health problems.

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