The link between Stress and Alcohol

Stress. We all have it. Whether it’s a new job, a lost job, an illness, the death of a loved one, a move across the country, a divorce, or the global Covid-19 pandemic, no one is exempt from stressors in life.

Stress can result from a myriad of factors and is defined “as the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable.”

Sometimes stress is appropriate and helpful, such as the drive to perform well before a big test or a job interview. However, stress can be excessive, and even perceived stress can cause health problems and long-term adverse effects.

Then, there’s alcohol. Many people turn to substances, such as alcohol, to deal with stress. It may seem that drinking alcohol, occasionally and in moderation, may provide short term relief.

However, long-term heavy alcohol use negates any short-term benefits and brings with it a host of health problems such as disease, cancer, and much more stress.

Types of Stress and the Body’s Response

Stress comes in all types, and no one is immune. Researchers Keyes, Hatzenbuehler, and Hasin narrow down anxiety into four main types:

  1. Fateful/catastrophic events
  2. Child stress
  3. Common adult stressful life events
  4. Ethnic minority stress 

When we feel anxiety, our body, being the intuitive machine that it is, undergoes a “complex and extensive process of adapting to harmful or dangerous situations created by stress to keep a physiological balance, a state known as homeostasis” (Ramsay & Woods, 2014).

Regardless of where the stress originates, the body’s reaction functions the same way: the normal metabolic processes shift into overdrive, causing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis system to activate the pituitary gland, which then activates the adrenal gland to release the stress hormone, cortisol throughout the body.

A healthy stress response allows a spike in cortisol, and then a sharp decrease once the threat or stress has passed.

Resilient individuals, those who can deal with stress healthily, often have no problems. However, those who do not handle stress well may continuously turn to substances such as alcohol, causing additional detrimental effects.

How Alcohol Affects the Body’s Stress Response

When alcohol enters into the mix of stress, it throws the body’s physiological balance off. Here’s what happens:

Alcohol creates higher amounts of cortisol in the brain, which disrupts the body’s hormonal balance. However, it does further damage by not allowing the body to return to its normal hormonal balance point. Instead, the body attempts to set a new point of physiological functioning called allostasis as it tries to adapt to the hormone changes.

This cortisol-allostasis cycle can be detrimental. It takes more and more alcohol for the brain to register the reward/pleasure system, which can lead to alcoholism; plus, this cycle wreaks havoc on the body. Research has also shown that high cortisol also contributes to psychiatric disorders, such a depression.

Risk Factors Linking Stress to Alcoholism

No one is exempt from stress, but according to research by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, some people are more resilient, meaning they can adapt to the psychological and physiological responses of stress better than others. Researchers found that personality, heredity, and lifestyle are all factors.

For example, people who tend to be optimistic and use problem-solving have the upper hand in stress responses. Personality traits such as “impulsivity, novelty seeking, negative emotionality, and anxiety” are all factors of those who are at risk for increased substance abuse disorders.

In addition, a family history of alcoholism, past trauma, and/or mental health issues also increase one’s risk of alcoholism.

Stress and Alcoholism Recovery

Of course, when someone stops drinking, stress does not just magically disappear. In fact, after addiction treatment, most people still encounter triggers and cravings, which obviously produces more stress. Because heavy drinking alters the brain’s chemistry, it takes to time to reset what is “normal.”

Effective addiction treatments include both social support and coping and problem-solving skills and will address all aspects of a person’s physical, emotional, mental, and physiological well-being.

Here are some practical ways to combat stress in recovery:

Build a Support System

Alcoholism recovery means recovering with others who have been there or who are currently there. Building a support system to lean on is a vital way to surround you with lifelines in recovery, which, in turn, helps relieve stress. Alcoholics Anonymous is an excellent place to start; however, the amount of support groups available is expansive.

Exercise Regularly

The benefits of regular exercise are not just physical ones. Exercising can reduce stress, improve mood, and enhance mental health.

Moving regularly also brings a host of other benefits such as better sleep, improved self-esteem, and increased concentration. Research has shown that exercise is a powerful recovery tool.


Writing down your thoughts, feelings, and experiences is another crucial way to relieve stress and is a tool often used in recovery. Journaling in recovery can help articulate emotions, identify triggers, know yourself on a deeper level, and of course, relieve stress.

Focus on Gratitude

In recovery, you will continuously hear the importance of gratitude, and it is true. Focusing on what you are grateful for may seem cliché, but it serves as a gamechanger in addiction recovery, backed by research!


Alcohol is a short-term fix that leads to long-term problems. While it may seem like alcohol relieves stress, the way that it interacts with the brain’s chemistry actually makes the stress much worse. You’re better off avoiding alcohol, and if you need help, reach out.

David Scourfield

David Scourfield is a Camino Recovery team member since 2017, focused on facilitating communication with Clinical and other professionals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Camino's program.

Combining his marketing skills and lived experiences, he joined Camino in 2017, contributing to external publications and the Camino website. With a strong belief in solidarity during the recovery process, David helps clients build support networks by connecting them with others in recovery.

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