Alcohol and mental health

Alcohol and mental health are closely linked. Drinking too much can affect your wellbeing. Some people may drink to try to relieve the symptoms of mental ill-health.

*Last updated: 10 November 2021

People drink for a wide range of reasons: to celebrate, socialise, commiserate or drown our sorrows. We may drink to try and change our mood: to feel more relaxed, courageous or confident. However, the effect of alcohol is only temporary. As it wears off, we often feel worse because of how alcohol withdrawal affects our brain and body.

How alcohol affects your brain

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in your brain and affect your feelings, thoughts and behaviour.

Alcohol affects the part of your brain that controls inhibition, so after a drink or two you may feel relaxed, less anxious and more confident. If you’re dealing with difficult emotions, you might find alcohol temporarily numbs them. But these effects quickly wear off. The chemical changes in your brain can soon lead to more negative feelings such as anger, depression or anxiety taking over – regardless of the mood you’re in.

Alcohol also slows down how your brain processes information, making it harder to work out what you’re really feeling and the possible consequences of your actions.

In the long-term, alcohol uses up and reduces the amount of neurotransmitters in our brains, but we need a certain level to ward off anxiety and depression. This can make you want to drink more to relieve these difficult feelings – which can start a cycle of dependence.

How alcohol affects your body

Alcohol can affect your body in many different ways. In the short-term, drinking too much can lead to alcohol poisoning, sleep problems, an upset stomach, bloating and migraines. It may make you behave recklessly or aggressively, have an accident or become the victim of violence.

Drinking a lot for many years will take its toll on your body. Long-term alcohol misuse increases your risk of serious health conditions including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, liver disease and cancer. It can lead to social problems such as relationship break-ups, unemployment, financial difficulties and homelessness.

Dealing with physical health problems, debt and housing issues can all affect your mental health.

Alcohol and mental health

Alcohol problems and mental ill-health are closely linked. Research shows people who drink a lot of alcohol are more likely to develop mental health problems. 

It’s also true that people with severe mental ill-health are more likely to have alcohol problems. This may be because they ‘self-medicate’, meaning they drink to deal with difficult feelings or symptoms.

Alcohol and depression

Regular heavy drinking is linked to symptoms of depression. Often, people with depression who drink alcohol will find they start to feel better within the first few weeks of stopping drinking. If you try this and feel better, it’s likely the alcohol was causing your depression. If your symptoms of depression continue, speak to your GP for help.

It’s generally not recommended to drink if you’re taking antidepressants. Alcohol can make depression worse and increase the side-effects of some antidepressants. If you’re trying to cut down or stop drinking, research shows some antidepressants can increase your risk of relapsing. The NHS website has more information on alcohol and antidepressants.

Alcohol and anxiety

If you experience anxiety, alcohol can give you a very short-lived feeling of relaxation – but this quickly disappears. If you rely on alcohol to cover your anxiety, you may soon find yourself drinking more and more to relax. Over time, this can lead to alcohol dependence.

You may also find a hangover makes your anxiety worse.

If you use alcohol to unwind, think about other ways you can find to relax: meditation, yoga, exercise or making time for things you enjoy, for example.

Alcohol and psychosis

It’s possible to experience psychosis if you regularly drink a lot of alcohol. Psychosis can also be triggered if you’re a heavy drinker and suddenly stop drinking.

Alcohol, suicide and self-harm

Because alcohol can make you lose your inhibitions and act more impulsively, it may lead to actions such as self-harm or suicide. Heavy drinking is also linked to suicidal thoughts and attempts.

If you’re having suicidal feelings, you can call Samaritans free any time. Call 999 or go to A&E if you’ve hurt yourself or think you might act on suicidal thoughts.

Getting help if you’re worried about your drinking

The government advises that both men and women should not regularly drink more than 14 units a week. This is the equivalent of six pints of average strength beer or six medium glasses of wine. If you regularly drink as much of this, it’s best to spread it over three or more days.

If you’re worried about drinking or feel it’s affecting your mental health, there is a lot of help available.

Getting support

Talk to your GP. It might feel difficult, but they will have heard from many other people going through something similar and will want to help you. They can check your physical health as well as put you in touch with local support such as an NHS drugs and alcohol service. You can also ask about other support groups or talking therapies to help you.

If you’re physically dependent on alcohol and need to stop drinking completely, stopping suddenly could be harmful. Your GP can give you advice and/or medication to help you do this safely.

Dual diagnosis

If you have a severe mental health problem and a drinking problem, you may be given a ‘dual diagnosis’. If so, mental health services should be in charge of your treatment rather than drug and alcohol services. Find out more on our drugs and mental health page.

Ways to help yourself

If you want to cut down on your drinking, avoid situations where you’re tempted to drink. If you usually socialise in the pub, think about other activities you could enjoy with friends: going to the cinema, doing an activity together or trying an evening class. Club Soda – which can help you become more mindful about drinking – has more tips on socialising sober.

Changing your habits can be tough. Talking to people you trust about your plans may help you change. They can encourage you along the way and keep you company if you’re using exercise or other tactics to help you cope.

The NHS website has tips on cutting down. Have a look at the organisations in the useful resources section below too.

Useful resources and information

Al-Anon offers support and understanding to the family and friends of problem drinkers.

Alcohol Change UK campaign for better alcohol policies and improved support for people whose lives are affected by alcohol problems. They offer help and support if you want to change your drinking habits.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) runs free self-help groups for anyone who thinks they have a drink problem.

Drinkaware provides advice, information and tools to help people make better choices about their drinking.

Drinkline is a free, confidential helpline for anyone worried about their drinking or someone else’s. Call 0300 123 1100.

SMART Recovery groups help people build their motivation to change and offer tools and techniques to help with their recovery.

Turning Point offers tailored support to people with drug or alcohol problems. This could be advice, medical treatment, peer support, social activities or help getting back into work, for example.

We Are With You offers free, confidential support with alcohol, drugs or mental health. They have a helpline and webchat specifically for people over 50.

LGBTQI+ support services

The Gay and Sober website has regularly updated information on online LGBTQI+ recovery group meetings.

The LGBT Foundation provides information, support and advice to LGBTQI+ people. They offer one-to-one and group support for people concerned about their drug or alcohol use.

Alcohol Change UK has more resources for LGBTQI+ people who drink in moderation or don’t drink.