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A Guide to Understanding Alcohol's Mental Effects

A lot of studies have been done over the years to show that the link between alcohol and mental health is complicated. On the one hand, a lot of people drink alcohol to relax or make friends. In moderation, it can even help relieve stress or anxiety for a short time. On the other hand, drinking too much or for a long time might be bad for mental health.

11 Minutes Read | Published Aug 04 2023 | Updated Jun 02 2024 Expert Verified
Dameisha Gibson
Reviewed by
Dameisha Gibson
Reviewed by

As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol slows down brain activity and changes how neurotransmitters work. At first, this might make you feel happy or calm, but it can also make it harder to make decisions, lose your memory, and make mental health problems worse.

Drinking increases the risk of becoming symptomatic for those who already have a mental disease, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In short words, it can worsen symptoms, reduce the effectiveness of medication, and raise the risk of self-harm or suicidal thoughts. But this isn't the only problem; drinking could lead to a mental health disorder that you didn't know you had before.

Some people use alcohol as a way to cope with their mental health problems. This can lead to a dangerous cycle of dependence that gets worse over time and hurts their general well-being.

How Alcohol Affects Your Central Nervous System?

The central nervous system (CNS) is deeply affected by alcohol in many ways. First, it works as a sedative by increasing the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which makes you sleepy and less alert. Also, drinking blocks glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, slows down the CNS even more, and makes it harder to think and remember things. Alcohol not only slows down the brain but also speeds up the reward system, which makes you feel good after drinking it.

Serotonin levels drop when you drink alcohol, which makes mood swings and depression more likely and more challenging to treat. Long-term alcohol abuse can have a significant impact on the brain, leading to changes in its structure and a decrease in tissue volume in areas crucial for memory and learning. It could be challenging to think clearly and recall information. Understanding the impact of alcohol on the brain and spinal cord is crucial for mitigating its detrimental effects on mental health and effectively addressing alcohol use disorders.

How Alcohol Affects Your Mental Health?

Alcohol greatly affects mental health, with its effects felt in different regions and neurotransmitter systems. When consumed, alcohol quickly enters the bloodstream and affects the way the brain functions. One of its primary functions is to boost gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that helps to reduce brain activity. The increased GABA activity causes a general drop in neural activity, calming you and relieving tension and unease.

Another sometimes overlooked effect is that alcohol slows down the action of glutamate, a chemical that makes the brain work faster. Lowering glutamate action affects brain function, potentially causing memory loss and making it hard to focus and think clearly. Another consequence could be decreased communication skills and movement disorders.

Alcohol releases dopamine, which induces enjoyment and reward. It activates the brain's reward circuit. Dopamine is released when alcohol is consumed, causing pleasurable feelings. Maintaining your habits may lead to alcoholism.

Chronic Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) can damage brain tissue and alter neuron connections, altering the architecture and predisposing to the development of dementia.

In summary, you should remember that alcohol causes mood swings, decreased thinking, and memory loss. Studies have shown that alcohol alters brain composition and function in the long term.

Here is a summary of alcohol's effects on brain chemistry and structure:

Alcohol Effect

Brain Impact

Short-Term Mental Health Consequences

Long-Term Mental Health Consequences

Enhancement of GABA

It slows down neural activity and induces relaxation.

Promotes relaxation while reducing anxiety and stress levels.

It increases the risk of dependence and tolerance development.

Inhibition of Glutamate

It is in charge of depressing brain function and impairing cognition.

It can cause memory lapses and make it difficult to concentrate.

It can cause cognitive impairment and increase vulnerability to addiction.

Dopamine Release

It triggers feelings of pleasure and the reward system.

Causes euphoria and a reinforcement of alcohol consumption.

Increases the risk of addiction and decreases sensitivity to natural rewards.

Structural Changes

It causes reductions in brain tissue volume that can be seen in images in the long term. It also causes neuronal disruptions.

It may cause cognitive deficits and mood changes.

Causes permanent cognitive impairment and predisposes to the development of mood disorders.


Does Alcohol Use Increase the Risk of Suicide?

Alcohol use greatly raises the likelihood of suicide, mainly due to its significant influence on mental well-being. Alcohol can worsen existing mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, increasing the associated risks. Alcohol has the potential to amplify negative emotions and depressive symptoms, which can increase the likelihood of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in individuals who are already grappling with mental illness.

When you think about how AUD can affect your relationships, money, and health in the long run, you might feel hopeless and depressed, which unfortunately raises the risk of suicide. Also, alcohol makes it harder to think and work your brain, which can make you do stupid things like hurt yourself or even kill yourself.

A lot of people drink to deal with stress, trauma, or emotional pain, but this is not a good or effective way to do it. Instead, drinking to deal with problems or treat yourself can make mental health issues worse and make suicidal thoughts stronger. For example, drinking too much alcohol can make it much harder to make decisions and control yourself, which can make you more likely to do dangerous things like try to kill yourself.

In general, the way drinking affects mental health is a big reason why more people commit suicide. To effectively reduce suicide rates and enhance the well-being of individuals impacted, it is crucial to prioritize efforts towards tackling alcohol misuse and offering extensive mental health assistance and interventions. Seeking professional help and support is crucial when dealing with issues related to alcohol consumption or suicidal ideation.

Does Stopping Alcohol Consumption Reverse Mental Health Effects?

When you decide to stop drinking alcohol, you'll notice significant improvements in your mental health. However, the extent of these improvements may differ depending on various factors, including your personal qualities, the duration and intensity of your alcohol consumption, and any pre-existing mental health issues you may have.

Staying sober can improve mental health by enabling the brain to repair and the neurotransmitter systems to restore balance gradually. Stopping excessive or continuous alcohol drinking can improve one's mental health. Anxiety, despair, and mood issues all have the potential to improve.

However, the extent of reversal can differ among individuals. Even after individuals cease consuming alcohol, they may continue to experience symptoms if they have co-occurring mental health disorders. For individuals who decide not to consume alcohol, additional treatment and support may be necessary if their pre-existing mental health conditions have been worsened by alcohol use.

It's worth mentioning that when someone stops drinking alcohol, their withdrawal symptoms can temporarily exacerbate mental health symptoms, particularly if they have severe alcohol dependence. It is crucial to seek professional support and guidance when stopping alcohol use. Medical supervision and appropriate interventions may be needed to handle withdrawal symptoms and avoid relapse.

In general, ceasing alcohol consumption can result in better mental health for many people, but it is not a guaranteed solution for all. To achieve lasting well-being, it's crucial to acknowledge and address any underlying mental health concerns. Seeking support from healthcare professionals and embracing holistic approaches to recovery can be instrumental in this process.

Where Should I Go If I Have a Mental Health Problem and Cannot Stop Drinking?

If you're having a mental health issue and struggling to quit drinking, see a doctor or nurse practitioner. Visit your primary care doctor first. He or she can assess your mental and physical health, including alcohol consumption. They can advise you on therapy and send you to mental health or drug treatment institutions for further testing and specialized care.

Speak with mental health professionals who specialize in addressing both drug use disorders and mental disorders. Various professionals in the mental health field are available to assist, including psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and other specialists. These experts utilize a range of effective methods to address mental health concerns and alcoholism. 


Through participation in a support group, such as SMART Recovery or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), you will have the opportunity to access beneficial resources and receive encouragement from those who have been through similar challenges. It is comforting to know that assistance is accessible for issues related to the misuse of substances or mental health. Remember, you are not the only one dealing with these challenges; there are others.


bullet Elsevier
"The epidemiology of alcohol use disorders cross-nationally: Findings from the World Mental Health Surveys"
Retrieved on May 31, 2024
bullet PrePrints.org
"Central Nervous System Depressant Drugs: Updated Review"
Retrieved on May 31, 2024
bullet Oxford Academy
"Understanding the health impact of alcohol dependence"
Retrieved on May 31, 2024
bullet Elsevier
"Pharmacogenetics of alcohol's CNS effect: Implications for the etiology of alcoholism"
Retrieved on May 31, 2024
bullet Sage Journals
"Alcohol, wine and mental health: focus on dementia and stroke"
Retrieved on May 31, 2024
bullet MDPI
"Alcohol Use Disorder: Neurobiology and Therapeutics"
Retrieved on May 31, 2024
bullet Springer
"Suicide Risk and Addiction: The Impact of Alcohol and Opioid Use Disorders"
Retrieved on May 31, 2024
bullet Wiley
"Alcohol use disorders and the brain"
Retrieved on May 31, 2024

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