The relationship between alcohol and mental health is complex. While the effects of alcohol can have a short-term positive impact on our mood, in the long term regular, heavy drinking can cause problems for mental health so this month we’ve got the experts to give us the facts and some practical tips on how to protect your mental health if you choose to drink.

People drink for many reasons: to celebrate, socialise or commiserate. After a tough day, people may choose to have a beer or wine to escape, relax and de-stress others might drink to try change their mood: to feel more courageous or confident. While it may make you feel better initially, the effect of alcohol is only temporary. As it wears off, we can feel worse because of how alcohol affects our mind and body which makes any difficult feelings harder to deal with. So, let’s explore this in some more detail.

How alcohol affects your brain

It might surprise you to know that alcohol is a depressant. Alcohol slows down the central nervous system which, in turn, impacts almost all the body’s cells and systems, including your brain chemistry. Your brain functions best when its chemicals and processes are all in balance, but alcohol disrupts that balance by changing the neurotransmitters (the chemicals that help transmit signals from one brain neuron to another). This in turn affects your feelings, thoughts and behaviour a.k.a your mental health.

The relaxed feeling you get when you have your first drink is the sign that your brain chemistry is starting to change. The alcohol is depressing the part of the brain associated with inhibition, which is why after a drink or two you may feel less anxious and more confident, often referred to as ‘losing your inhibitions’.

Drinking also lowers the levels of serotonin in your brain – a chemical that helps to regulate your mood. When this happens, negative emotional responses, such as anger, aggression, anxiety, or depression, can start to take over regardless of your mood. This can have a cumulative effect so that if you drink heavily, regularly, your serotonin levels get lower and lower. Rather than improving your mood, alcohol can gradually make it worse.

Finally, alcohol also slows down how your brain processes information, making it harder to work out what you’re really feeling and the possible consequences of your actions are.

In the short term, you may feel more relaxed, but having a drink is often used as a distraction from dealing with what’s causing you stress, anxiety, or frustration.

If you use alcohol as a way of relieving stress and anxiety, drinking may become a habit.  Long-term this can be a real problem for mental health as heavy drinking reduces the number of neurotransmitters in our brains that help to regulate negative thoughts and emotions, which can make you want to drink even more to relieve the difficult feelings. You can see how the cycle of dependence can start.

Some signs that drinking could be impacting your mental health:

  • You are drinking more than you used to or you pattern of drinking has changed.
  • Finding it hard to sleep after drinking – drinking won’t lead to a good night’s sleep either as it can disrupt your sleep patterns. A lack of good quality sleep is also linked lower mood and make feelings of stress even harder to deal with.
  • Changes in mood and/or temperament – behaving more recklessly or aggressively, having more frequent accidents or become involved with violence.
  • Changes in your physical health from simple things like upset stomachs, bloating and more frequent headaches through to more serious health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, liver problems.
  • Feeling tired and hung over regularly.
  • Feeling worried, anxious, and uncomfortable in places that you wouldn’t normally have been worried.
  • Feeling worried, anxious and frustrated with people who wouldn’t normally have this effect on you e.g. partners, family, friends or team mates. Aside from the well-known physical symptoms of a hangover, you may have noticed that you feel more anxious the day after drinking; you may have a nagging worry that you did or said something you shouldn’t have. You may also feel angry or disappointed in yourself for drinking too much.
  • Feeling unmotivated, worried, or anxious at work.

The more alcohol you drink, the greater the effect it has on your brain function and – potentially – your mental health.

So how much can I drink?

There is no simple answer to this question as we all feel the effects of alcohol on our body and mind differently. It also depends a bit on your other responsibilities, but evidence shows that drinking more than the Ministry of Health’s Low Risk drinking guidelines of 14 standard drinks per week for men and 10 standard drinks per week for women, and at least 2 alcohol-free days per week, can make feelings of stress harder to deal with.

It is important to note that these guidelines refer to standard drinks, which is not necessarily a glass, bottle or can. Make sure you know exactly what one standard drink looks like for your favourite beverage as drinking more than the Ministry’s guidelines would classify you as a “heavy drinker” which brings with it a large range of additional health risks regardless of your age.

Cutting back on the amount you drink can help improve your overall mental health and wellbeing as well as reducing the risk of long-term harm so like most things – moderation is the key. At Alcohol&Me we like to use this SIZE, PACE, SPACE manta to help us drink smarter:


SIZE – get to know the size of your drink and stop kidding yourself it was one wine when it was actually three standard drinks.

PACE – remember the adult liver can only process one standard drinks (10g pure alcohol) per hour and there is no way to speed this process up so think about what’s a good pace for you to drink at so you last the distance in style and avoid a hangover the next day.

SPACE – how can you space your drinks out to make sure you remember the night for all the right reasons? Maybe you commit to having a glass of water between drinks, choose lower or no alcohol drinks, eat plenty of good food, and play a game of pool to give your hands something else to do!

Check out our 3 Top Tips for Drinking Smarter article for more information.

If you’ve been having a drink (or 2 or 3 …) most days as your way to relax, it can be hard to break that habit. Part 2 of our Mental Health & Alcohol series provides tips on alternative ways to relax but a great start might be to have just one small drink with your dinner in the evening. Try to resist the temptation to reach for the bottle as soon as you get home by creating a new end of day/week ritual – this is a great way to help you cut back and make the choices that are right for you and your wellbeing.

If you need help

If you ever find yourself using alcohol to help you cope with challenges in your life, you need a friend and that friend can’t be found at the bottom of a bottle, can or glass.

It is Ok to ask for help so if your difficult feelings/anxiety are impacting life at home or at work, if your low mood doesn’t improve or you feel that you are just not coping, please reach out for professional advice and support:

  • If it is an emergency, call 111
  • Contact your local GP or healthcare professional
  • Reach out to the friendly trained counsellors at the Alcohol&Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797. They are available 24/7 and can provided everything from self help tips, to counselling contacts and treatment options
  • Free Text or call 1737 anytime

Seeking help may feel like a big step but with the right support and guidance it is never too late to make a positive change. Please do not worry alone! For more information you might like to check out –


The Alcohol&Me Team