Alcohol plays a nasty trick on those who struggle with it: even if you think you're relaxing by drinking heavily, in the end, it may actually make you more anxious. Beyond Blue, an Australian depression organization, explains that the link exists even in those of us without alcohol or previous anxiety issues:
"... it can also be quite common to feel a bout of anxiety after a night out drinking, particularly if you are already prone to feeling anxious or experiencing panic attacks [...] The anxiety can be triggered as your body works to remove alcohol from your system, with blood sugar levels dropping...Some antidepressant medications also interact with alcohol to increase ‘rebound’ symptoms of anxiety.... The anxiety-fueled hangover is so common it has even coined the slang terms 'hangxiety' and 'boozanoia' in recent years."
The temptation to use alcohol to calm down in the moment, in other words, may be offset by a worsening of symptoms later.
But the alcohol-anxiety link goes further. Research has shown that comorbidity — the technical term for the coexistence of two disorders or illnesses — of alcoholism and anxiety disorders has a bit of variation, and what starts what is often unclear. "Evidence for a causal relationship," Comprehensive Psychiatry noted in 1998, "is not unidirectional [ie it doesn't just go one way] as alcoholism is often observed as a primary disorder, and the presence of problem drinking itself may generate severe anxiety or depressive syndromes." People who are alcoholics have a two to threefold higher likelihood of having an anxiety disorder than people who aren't; but part of this, scientists think, is that alcohol can actually set off or create the conditions for anxiety problems.
A possible reason for this was uncovered in 2012, when scientists at the University of North Carolina found that heavy drinkers seem to "rewire" their brains in ways that make them more susceptible to anxiety issues. They experimented with mice, putting them through experiences that had the potential to be slightly traumatic, while also plying them with minute quantities of alcohol (but enough, in a mouse's small body, to replicate heavy drinking). The mice who were teetotal didn't really get very upset at the experiences; but the ones who were "heavy drinkers" were completely horrified and miserable about them, even if there was nothing actually traumatic happening at the time. Researchers discovered that the brains of the alcohol-affected mice were reshaped and a key nerve cell wasn't working properly, creating huge potential for anxiety. In other words, if an alcoholic suddenly starts to develop anxiety disorders, this is likely why.
Things continue to get intriguing when you turn to the science on inheritance. It looks as if, according to a study on comorbidity of alcoholism, depression and anxiety in families, you can inherit a propensity to be both an anxiety sufferer and an alcoholic from a parent.