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Why does drinking alcohol trigger my anxiety?

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Alcohol’s psychological effects depend on our mental state, it enhances our focus on the present and disrupts sleep which can emphasise feelings of anxiety.

Asked by: Natalie Richards, Leeds

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The psychological effects of alcohol are complex – it can have both sedative and stimulating effects on the brain, causing either sleepiness or physical arousal. How this manifests from a subjective perspective depends a lot on your mental state at the time, as well as the broader social context.

While a drink can calm your nerves in some situations, lab research shows that it doesn’t help reduce fear of a threat or predicament that you know is coming. If anything, because alcohol can enhance our focus on the present moment, it could trigger your anxiety by making you more preoccupied with whatever you’re currently worried about. Alcohol can also accentuate anxiety by interfering with sleep and leaving you fatigued and feeling less able to cope.

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Authors

Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.

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