Are people forgetting the effect of alcohol on Mental Health?
The Chief Medical Officer has come out over the last two days saying new research shows that there is actually no such thing as a safe drinking level and any amount of alcohol is harmful. Recognising that not many people will go along with this, the medical fraternity are suggesting that we should drink only very moderately ( we have all heard the guidelines) and that we should avoid drinking every day, to give our livers a breather!
This has generated an awful lot of debate. One of the interviews caught my eye. The person concerned had a busy life and in the evening 'relaxed' with a bottle of wine. It was when she decided to have a break from alcohol that she noticed how different she felt and it wasn't just physical benefits. She said she had been very prone to anxiety and depression as well as problems with fatigue and motivation. Suddenly she was sleeping much better ( see my blog on 'The importance of sleep on mood and depression' ), had much more energy and crucially noticed that her mood improved dramatically, being much less anxious and depressed.
As a mental health practitioner who works with many people with anxiety and depression, this resonated with me, but I don't think people think about/realise how much alcohol affects the way they feel. It's easy to drink a couple of glasses of wine after work and think nothing of it. Like cigarettes, alcohol can quickly become associated with relaxing when someone feels a little anxious or stressed.
Alcohol is a mood changer and unfortunately can initially have a temporary positive impact on the way we feel, which can be quite seductive. But this can quickly change. Alcohol affects the neurotransmitters in our brains, lowering seratonin levels ( a chemical that regulates mood, appetite ,sleep and memory) which often results in us being, amongst other negative effects, angry, aggressive, anxious or depressed. It magnifies the underlying feelings we have when we start to drink. People who drink most nights can go through the next day feeling sluggish, tired and generally underpar, often without realising why. Evidence is clear, that people who consume "high levels" of alcohol are vulnerable to mental health issues.
So as a counsellor, I believe it is important to help people take note of how much alcohol they are consuming. Awareness of what we are doing and thinking is an important part of managing anxiety and depression. When people who see me do focus on their drinking habits for the first time, they are often surprised by how much they are drinking and what a positive affect reducing their intake can have. The first thing is often that sleep improves and then most other things follow on from this, exactly as that woman in the interview that sparked this blog was saying. It can be quite sobering! And for most people, cutting down on alcohol consumption, particularly once they notice the benefits, can be relatively easy.
Don't get me wrong, I will continue to enjoy drinking some days, but having worked in this area for many years, it has made me much more mindful and careful about how much I have.