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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Stress and the Dangers of Alcohol

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 30th 2012

Stress and the Dangers of AlcoholThe scenario is familiar. He or she comes home from a stressful day at work and reaches for the bottle of gin to make a martini because it is "needed." In fact, perhaps one martini become two because of the amount of pressure that was faced during the day. After all, two is better than one because the first felt so good. The mood lifted, everything felt great and why not enhance the effect with that second drink?

According to Dr. Suzanne Thomas, MD, psychiatrist at the Medical University of South Carolina, stress is one of the major reasons why people addicted to alcohol relapse after years of sobriety. She points out that there are many types of stress, from small to large, that people are subjected to. Whether is pressure from the boss, problems with the children at home, large bills or serious health problems, these types of "bad" stress take their toll. However, this is also true of "good" stress. A promotion at work, a large salary increase, winning an award, and the birth of a new baby are felt as stress and also take a toll on health and well being. For the person in recovery from addiction, these are the types of things that lead directly to a relapse. Furthermore, it is those who use alcohol as a mood stabilizer who are in greatest danger of becoming addicted. Why does this happen? In fact, why do relapses happen?

Dr. Thomas points out that addiction brings about "over-learning," or habit so that the brain goes there without any conscious thinking. She compares it to driving a car to work everyday where the driver no longer thinks about driving but drives automatically because it has been "over-learned." Have you ever found yourself driving to work on your day off when your attention is to go to the movies or elsewhere? My wife and I like to joke that it's not our fault, the car wanted to go there!!" In the same way, with the addictions, the brain becomes trained to reach for that drink, especially when stress is involved.

For those in recovery and for those who are in danger of addiction because they use alcohol as a mood stabilizer, what strategies can be used to prevent addiction problems?

Strategies of Prevention or how to be resilient in the face of stress:

1. Adequate sleep is vitally important. Dr. Thomas states that 7 to 8 hours of sleep at least five times a week, is necessary for health and functioning and preventing stress from doing damage.

2. Eating a health diet is important. in order to learn more about that it's important to consult your physician.

3. Exercise is always a healthy way to become resilient enough to fight off the ill effects of stress.

4. Having a good friend or your spouse to talk to and confide in about things that are happening is important.

5. Using meditation or any other type of spirituality helps.

6. Structuring the day so that the chances of facing certain problems is helpful. For example, leave for work early in order to avoid rush hour traffic. At the very least, leave early enough to avoid the pressure felt when facing being late to work. In other words, in this and other situations, plan ahead.

7. Be aware of the early signs of stress so that using these strategies can head off a major stress induced reaction. Self awareness is important and knowing your personal way of reacting to stress is important.

It is important to state that, for those people who have a drink after work for their leisure, there may be health benefits of having that drink. However, this does not mean that non drinkers should start drinking and it does not mean that more than one drink is safe. It does mean that you have to know yourself and know that drinking is doing you harm you must stop.

Alcohol is not a safe or benign substance. Drunk driving is one of the leading causes of death around the world, including the U.S. In addition, consuming too much alcohol can cause brain damage as well as major damage to organs throughout the body. Drinking while pregnant is dangerous to the fetus and can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome.

While the dangers of other drugs of addiction are frequently discussed, it's all to easy to ignore the most dangerous and damaging of all: alcohol.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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