Understanding the Connection Between Alcohol Use and Mental Health

Written by: Thrishala Gunathunga

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Did you know that alcohol is one of the most extensively used addictive substances in the world? Its availability and acceptance within society are what lead to its widespread use, with many people using alcohol to relax and cope with various stressors. However, it’s important to remember that excessive alcohol use can negatively impact one’s mental health.

How Does Alcohol Use Impact Mental Health?

Alcohol use can negatively impact mental health in various ways, ranging from short-term effects to long-term consequences.

1. Depression and anxiety

Alcohol can indeed make people feel relaxed and euphoric. However, these feelings are temporary and can interfere with neurotransmitter balance in the brain over time. This means that if you already have anxiety or depression, you are more likely to trigger or intensify your symptoms with the use of alcohol. Previous research has also found that greater levels of depression symptoms are connected with earlier alcohol use, more frequent drinking, and intoxication in both Norwegian secondary school girls and boys (Johannessen et al., 2017).

2. Cognitive impairments

Contrary to popular belief, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which means that it decreases cognitive functioning. Therefore, even moderate amounts of alcohol can cause cognitive impairments. Long-term and excessive use of alcohol can cause structural and functional brain damage, resulting in alcohol-related dementia (ARD). Cognitive impairments are most commonly found in visuospatial functioning, memory, and executive tasks, with the possibility of some recovery if abstinence is continued (Sachdeva et al. 2016).

3. Sleep problems

Alcohol may help people fall asleep faster, but it also interferes with the sleep cycle, resulting in irregular sleep patterns. Therefore, a variety of behavioural challenges, including sleep problems are reported in 35%–91% of patients presenting with long-term alcohol use. The most common sleep problems related to alcohol use are difficulty falling asleep, decreased sleep quality, and daytime sleepiness. These sleep problems also remain throughout alcohol withdrawal, but have been reported to disappear with continuous abstinence (Martindale et al., 2017).

4. Aggressive behaviours

We are all familiar with how drinking alcohol impairs judgement and reduces inhibitions. This can then result in both verbal and physical aggression. However, it is important to understand that not everyone who uses alcohol becomes aggressive, and the degree to which alcohol enhances aggression varies depending on genetics, personality factors, prior experiences, and environmental conditions. However, alcohol use can be harmful to society, since evidence suggests that higher rates of alcohol use are associated with higher rates of homicide and violent crime (Fritz et al., 2023).

5. Risk of suicidal ideation and behaviors

Alcohol use is closely connected to an increased risk of suicidal ideation and behaviour. More specifically, alcohol’s depressive effects combined with impaired judgment and impulse control can lead to self-harm or suicidal behaviours. Furthermore, long-term alcohol intoxication can increase maladaptive coping strategies and impair self-regulation in those who are predisposed to risk-taking behaviour, raising the risk of suicide (Rizk et al., 2021).

What are the Strategies for Reducing Alcohol Use?

Reducing the use of alcohol is a difficult but attainable goal when different strategies and support systems are put in place, as explained below.

1. Setting clear and realistic goals for alcohol use is important. Whether it’s reducing the number of drinks per week or completely avoiding drinking alcohol, having a particular goal can increase your determination.

2. Keeping track of alcohol use can help people become more mindful of their drinking habits. Keeping a journal or recording the number of drinks taken in a smartphone app, along with the triggers of drinking alcohol, can provide useful insights and help you detect patterns in your drinking behaviour.

3. Minimising access to alcohol, such as not having it at home, or avoiding situations where alcohol is readily available, can help reduce the desire to drink.

4. It is important to identify other strategies for coping with stress, anxiety, and other difficulties rather than turning to alcohol. At times like this, you can try things like exercise, meditation, creative hobbies, or spending time with supportive friends and family.

5. Don’t forget to celebrate achievements and progress towards reducing alcohol use, no matter how little, because it can enhance your motivation and self-esteem to keep working towards your goals.

6. If you feel like you cannot reduce your alcohol use by yourself, it is always better to seek professional help from a therapist, counsellor, or support group.

In conclusion, alcohol use can have a significant impact on mental health, affecting mood, cognition, sleep, and relationships. By adopting healthy strategies into your daily routine, you can take active steps to reduce alcohol use and promote general well-being. It’s also important to remember that making changes takes time, patience, and effort, and seeking help from professionals and loved ones can make the road to abstinence easier and more rewarding.


Fritz, M., Soravia, S. M., Dudeck, M., Malli, L., & Fakhoury, M. (2023). Neurobiology of Aggression-Review of Recent Findings and Relationship with Alcohol and Trauma. Biology, 12(3), 469. https://doi.org/10.3390/biology12030469

Johannessen, E. L., Andersson, H. W., Bjørngaard, J. H., & Pape, K. (2017). Anxiety and depression symptoms and alcohol use among adolescents – a cross-sectional study of Norwegian secondary school students. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 494. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4389-2

Martindale, S. L., Hurley, R. A., & Taber, K. H. (2017). Chronic Alcohol Use and Sleep Homeostasis: Risk Factors and Neuroimaging of Recovery. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 29(1), A6–A5. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.neuropsych.16110307

Rizk, M. M., Herzog, S., Dugad, S., & Stanley, B. (2021). Suicide Risk and Addiction: The Impact of Alcohol and Opioid Use Disorders. Current Addiction Reports, 8(2), 194–207. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40429-021-00361-z

Sachdeva, A., Chandra, M., Choudhary, M., Dayal, P., & Anand, K. S. (2016). Alcohol-Related Dementia and Neurocognitive Impairment: A Review Study. International Journal of High-Risk Behaviours & Addiction, 5(3), e27976. https://doi.org/10.5812/ijhrba.27976