“I need a drink to relax”. You’ve heard it before – you’ve probably heard it this week! Many people report that a drink at the end of a hard week, or day, helps them to relax, unwind, and ease into a restful weekend. However, just as many people feel anxious and tired the morning after consuming alcohol – sometimes more so than before they started drinking in the first place!

At SMART Recovery Australia, we believe wholeheartedly in scientific evidence. So how, according to the science, does alcohol affect our mood?

It all starts with something called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or Gaba for short. The Gaba receptor in your brain calms your brain down, reducing your overall energy levels by causing fewer neurons to fire – and this is precisely the area of your brain alcohol targets with surgical precision precision. Think about a thrashy, splashy swim at Bondi Beach versus a placid lake. The first two standard drinks (so in layman’s terms, two shots of spirits, or roughly one and a half schooners of standard beer) have this effect, inducing the familiar “buzz” – calm, less anxious, less stressed, quicker to laugh and smile and get along. Sounds good, right?

However, by the third drink, your brain starts blocking glutamate. Glutamate levels correspond roughly to your anxiety levels. The more glutamate, the more anxiety, and vice versa. The reduced inhibitions of drunk people are caused by this reduction in glutamate. Again, this seems to support the narrative of carefree, relaxed alcohol consumption.

However, the human body doesn’t like things to be imbalanced. Not dissimilar to Newtowns’ Third Law – for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction – your body will always try and balance out your overall levels. Once your glutamate is blocked, your body will notice, and your body will make a concentrated attempt to increase levels back to what it perceives as “normal”. While you’re drunk, your body is on a mission to bring your glutamate levels right back up. So when you stop drinking, your Gaba function is unusually low, and your glutamate levels skyrocket, leading to a higher overall level of anxiety and emotional discomfort than before you started drinking in the first place.

Alcohol-related anxiety affects all of us differently. Some people are more prone to the effects of an anxious hangover than others. One study suggests that shy, introverted people are more adversely affected by all this than those who are less shy. This might suggest a correlation between those who drink to relax and the development of problems with alcohol. When you consider the popularity of the “hair of the dog” method of hangover cure – more alcohol – a pattern starts to emerge.

Anecdotally, this is something we see at SMART Recovery meetings all the time. The link between anxiety and substance use disorders is well established, and many SMART tools are equally applicable to managing anxiety. For example, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Motivational Interviewing techniques, cornerstones of the SMART Recovery model, are widely used to combat anxiety disorders in much the same way as in SMART Recovery groups.

It’s not uncommon for people to say they started drinking just to relax, calm down, or be more sociable, but as time went by, and their alcohol consumption increased, so too did their issues with anxiety and shyness. That’s why it’s critical that people always be mindful of their substance use, so you can self-monitor your alcohol consumption, and ask yourself if it really is helping you to relax.