There's a little beverage I'd like to tell you about. It's kind of magical.
You may be able to drink just a little of it and feel closer to your friends, start paying attention to the moment, feel your mood lift, maybe even put your worries in context so you become more carefree.
On the other hand, this spooky libation might actually increase stress in your life... so you might drink more of it in an effort to calm down. And that's OK... except that it may become a vicious circle and you'll have to drink more and more of it to reap its stress-reducing effects, until eventually it ruins your body, your mind and your whole life.
The rumor: Alcohol eases stress
Sure, alcohol has a downside, but if there's one thing to say for drinking, it's that it's not stressful. It's fun, and really -- who hasn't knocked back a few in an effort to blow off some steam? So: Does drinking (not necessarily a lot, but some) really reduce stress levels like it seems to, or what?
The verdict: Yes, alcohol can relieve stress when consumed in limited amounts, for certain people in specific situations. In virtually all other cases, it makes stress worse
Here's what's really happening: Alcohol reliably reduces the body's physiological stress response. But you may need to get drunk to get that benefit every time, so it's... uh, not a good de-stressing strategy for the long run. Plus, alcohol isn't metabolized like other foods and drinks. The amount of energy it takes to metabolize large doses of alcohol causes more stress to the body, even if you feel relaxed.
However, moderate doses of alcohol can also reduce stress... under the right circumstances... for some people. That last bit is important, because for other people it can cause stress, easing it momentarily even as it's increasing chronic stress levels. Not so magical now, huh?
Social stress relief
Let's unpack this a bit more, starting with a pleasant, positive experience: You're a moderate drinker. No anxiety disorder, you're not depressed, you're not taking meds that don't mix with booze and there's no family history of alcohol dependence. You just like to have a drink or two with your work colleagues, your friends, your partner. Does it ease stress?
Maybe. Could go either way. "At lower levels of intoxication -- a blood alcohol level of 0.04, or the equivalent of two drinks for most people -- alcohol can be a nice pleasant thing," says University of Missouri psychology professor Kenneth Sher, who runs the university's Alcohol, Behavior and Health laboratory. "But it could also be the 'crying-in-your-beer' phenomenon."
At the "slight buzz" level, alcohol is a social lubricant which often improves mood. You start to let go of a few worries, pay attention to the moment with friends. "It's telling that, outside of people with alcohol dependence, most people drink in a social situation," says Sher. "The overall enjoyment is more pleasurable, because it's enhancing that social experience. Drinking in groups creates cohesion, enhances group bonding and formation, and that's a clear social benefit."
Smashed and stress-free
Get drunk, on the other hand, and your body really relaxes. Totally. Stress, what's that? You're at the legal intoxication level, which the average person would get to after drinking, say, five 12-ounce regular beers in two hours.
At that level, "Alcohol reduces anxious-type responses, there's a dampening of your stress response and your heart rate, and you're inured to acute stressors, especially if you experience them when you're drunk," says Sher.
Got a problem with that? Sher certainly does.
"Unfortunately, the most reliable stress-reducing effects of alcohol occur at the most problematic doses, in terms of both acute harm and dependence," he says.
So let's get back to the nice pleasant drink or two with friends. That's moderate drinking, which has heart-health benefits along with psychological ones. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines "moderate" for men as no more than four drinks at a time and no more than 14 drinks a week. For women, it's no more than three drinks at a time and no more than seven drinks a week.
"If it's part of a lifestyle to enjoy food and alcohol, and you look forward to it, that's fine," says Carol Landau, clinical professor of psychiatry and medicine at the Alpert Medical School, Brown University. "It's an enjoyable habit, a lifestyle pleasure."
The dark side of drinking
How can you tell when you're drifting to the dark side? "If you're looking forward to a drink to relieve your stress, on a regular basis, that is a warning sign," says Sher. "There's a very strong relationship between having thoughts like, 'Alcohol helps me relax' and 'Having a few drinks makes my trouble go away' and alcohol dependency problems."
"Be especially careful if you have problems with anxiety," adds Landau. "If you have an anxiety disorder, you're more than twice as likely as the general population to develop an alcohol dependency." If you're taking meds, regular drinking is even more dangerous: Never mix benzodiazepine drugs for anxiety or panic disorders (Xanax, Ativan, Clonipine) with booze. Alcohol interacts negatively with lots of other medications, too.
Even if you don't have an anxiety disorder (or depression), it's easy to fall into the bad habit of using booze to chill out.
"I see a whole generation heading for their 30s who use stimulants to study, and then alcohol and marijuana to have fun," says Landau. "That's not a good pattern."
For women already in their 30s, she sees another pattern: "Her caffeine-fueled days are stressful, so she comes home stressed out and has a drink. That's not a healthy habit either."