As we head into April and spring break, along with celebrating the coming of spring it seems like a relevant time to talk about alcohol awareness. While alcohol use issues have always been a public health concern on varying levels, two years of dealing with the pandemic has certainly exacerbated the issue. More individuals are reporting coping with stress with increased substance use, the most common being alcohol.
For most people a glass of wine or a couple of drinks (responsibly) is not cause for concern. For others it may be more of a slippery slope. In a recent community behavioral assessment report, results show that Teton County is not exempt from trends. Community members reported:
“With elevated economic pressures and a widespread tourism-based culture that normalizes drinking, alcohol can become a coping mechanism for stress. The survey showed a high level of excessive drinking in Teton County (44%) compared to the national average (27%). Teton County also has the highest rate of excessive drinking in Wyoming. In particular, men, young adults (18-39), and mid- to high-income individuals are drinking the most. One in every two men in Teton County, regardless of race or ethnicity, reported drinking excessively.”
The report continued:
“Substance use is having a detrimental impact on community members’ mental health. Many community members (40%) report being negatively affected by their own or someone else’s substance use, almost double the national average. A majority of behavioral health providers (68%) name alcohol use as a top factor that strains community members’ mental health. Alcohol is also leading to legal consequences. In 2020, 80% of custodial arrests in Teton County were due to alcohol, the highest in the state. Individuals of greater means and with better legal representation are likely to face fewer consequences as a result of these arrests, while those of less means are more likely to shoulder financial and legal burdens.”
Alcohol use is on a continuum, but when does it become a problem that should concern you?
• Do you feel guilty or ashamed about your drinking?
• Do you lie or hide your drinking habits?
• Have friends or family members who are worried about your drinking?
• Do you feel you need to drink to relax or feel better?
• Have you ever “blacked out” or forgotten what you did while you were drinking?
• Do you regularly drink more than you intended to?
• Have you ever tried to quit drinking and were unsuccessful?
• How much time do you spend each week drinking?
• Do you get urges or cravings for alcohol?
• Do you miss work or other obligations due to drinking?
• Has your alcohol use negatively impacted your work/school or family relationships?
• Have you given up activities or things that you used to enjoy?
• Does your drinking ever put you in dangerous situations?
• Have you developed health issues due to your drinking?
Answering yes does not necessarily mean that you are dealing with an alcohol use disorder. Many people may fall in the category of “problem drinker,” which is not an actual diagnosis but more of a phase to describe those who tend to misuse alcohol but may not need a higher level of intervention. However, some behaviors may fall into the more serious categories.
Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more standard drinks for women and five or more drinks for men in about two hours. Heavy drinking is defined as consuming eight or more drinks per week for a woman or 15 or more drinks per week for a man. While not everyone who binge drinks or drinks heavily on occasion will develop an alcohol use disorder, this type of risky drinking behavior does increase your risk of harmful consequences. If drinking causes you social, legal or personal problems and you continue to drink despite the negative consequences, it is time to take note.
How does alcohol use relate to mental health? While the two issues can be intricately linked, one may not cause the other but can exacerbate an already present condition. Reaching for a drink may be a way to self-medicate or an attempt to decrease the uncomfortable symptoms that can come with anxiety and depression. While this may seem to help at first, in the end it is counterproductive and can become a difficult cycle to break.
Alcohol is in fact a depressant, but initially it also works as an indirect stimulant. Alcohol alters the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters transmit signals that direct thought processes, behavior and emotions. Alcohol also increases the release of dopamine in your brain’s “reward center.” This increase can make your brain think that you are feeling better. If you are self-medicating, you may keep drinking to get this release, but at the same time you are also altering other brain chemicals that are increasing anxiety and depression. Furthermore, you will have to increase the amount of alcohol over time to attempt to get the same release, creating tolerance.
So if you are already dealing with anxiety or depression, this can exacerbate the issue, and if you drink heavily and regularly you are likely to develop some symptoms of depression. It will take time once you stop drinking for your brain to get back to normal function. In addition, with the decrease in inhibitions that alcohol brings, it can also lead to impulsive behavior. If you are dealing with depression and anxiety, this combination can lead to actions or behaviors that you might not normally engage in if you were not using alcohol, including risky behavior, self-harm and even suicide.
Understanding the relationship between depression or anxiety and alcohol abuse is an important part of removing some of the barriers to seeking treatment. For information on mental health issues, contact the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center at 733-2046. For alcohol or substance use questions, contact Curran Seeley at 733-3908.