“Have a drink and relax.” There’s a good chance that someone has said those five words to you before. Alcohol and a good time, or alcohol to calm our nerves, seem intrinsically linked for many of us. And that’s not to say that having a glass of wine or a beer at the end of a stressful day doesn’t calm us down, because, for many of us, it does.
But, there’s often the question of how much of that calmness comes from the habit that’s been formed and the mental association that goes along with it, and how much of it is down to what you’re actually consuming. And that raises the next question, which is — is having alcohol actually the best way to calm your nerves?
Most of us are aware that excessive or long-term alcohol consumption can have serious and far-reaching health consequences — liver damage and increased cancer risk, just to name a few. But something we don’t often think about is the potential impact of alcohol consumption on our mental health. Many of us do truly consider a tipple as a kind of therapy to treat us for difficult days, stressful situations and to help us feel better when we’re sad or heart-broken.
There’s a reason for that. Alcohol depresses your central nervous system, meaning it slows down your senses. So, if you’ve been rushing around all day or are feeling highly strung (or sad), a glass of wine can indeed help you feel calmer because it’s literally decreasing your feelings. That may sound like a great thing, but that’s also where it gets a little complicated. As a doctor, I wholeheartedly agree that decreasing stress levels is absolutely vital to your health, but relying on alcohol to get you there isn’t good, even if it’s just one glass per day. I’m not arguing that alcohol may work very well at relaxing you, but long term, regular alcohol consumption can actually have the opposite effect on our mental health than the very effect we are trying to achieve.
Medical studies have proven that people who drink alcohol more regularly are more likely to experience problems with sleep, increased anxiety levels, plus it can impact our mood — and I don’t mean in a good, relaxed way!
With that in mind, if you want to be kinder to your brain and actually feel more relaxed and happy long term, reducing the number of alcoholic drinks you have each week is a good step. If it’s a habit that’s hard to break, there are simple mind tricks that can work well such as drinking sparkling water from a champagne flute or juice from a cocktail glass, and there are several genuinely good non-alcoholic wines and beers available if you still want to feel like you’re having a drink.
Getting some go-to tools in hand to use for reducing stress or anxiety rather than reaching for the bottle is a real positive as well — it’s important we question why we’re reaching for that second glass of red over dinner. If it’s genuinely to enjoy a drink on occasion and toast to a long week now done, that’s likely okay. But if it’s becoming a knee jerk type reaction to reduce stress and tension, then it’s important to pick that up and sub in something else that can calm us instead.
The mental health benefits of getting outside for a walk or some exercise, calling a friend or family member, sitting with a pet, or even watching a favourite feel-good movie far outweigh the short-term relaxation and happiness you might feel from a drink at the end of the day.
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.
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