We sometimes drink in the hope that it will help us forget worries or assist us with stressful situations, if only for a few hours. Many young people drink alcohol to help them cope with emotions or situations they would otherwise find difficult to manage. They drink to “drown their sorrows”, to change their mood or mental state. Alcohol is also used by teens – and sometimes even by our peers – as a form of self-medication, to relieve the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
For young people who are anxious or stressed, alcohol provides only very short term relief, if any. In fact, the more we drink, the more likely we are to feel anxious or depressed. Headstrong’s My World survey also shows that people who drink high levels of alcohol are more vulnerable to mental health problems. If teens come to rely on it as a coping mechanism, then it can quickly become a vicious cycle.
The science bit
Regularly drinking alcohol to deal with feelings of stress or anxiety can change our brain chemistry in the long term, by causing changes to some neurotransmitter systems that reduce anxiety naturally. Similarly, if we are feeling depressed, regular drinking changes the chemistry of the brain and also lowers levels of the chemical messenger serotonin, which helps regulate our moods.
This leads to young people entering a cycle of drinking alcohol to relieve anxiety and depression, but actually becoming more anxious and depressed as our drinking causes counterproductive changes to the brain.
It is like going to a money-lender if you are in financial difficulties. It can provide some very temporary relief, but your debt and problems end up even worse in the long run.
If alcohol is used as the main or most common strategy for dealing with stress and upset, teens can also arrive into adulthood as “one trick ponies”, having failed to develop a broader range of positive strategies for dealing with life’s challenges. It can be exactly the same for our age group.
People who drink high levels of alcohol are more vulnerable to mental health problems.