By Paul Williams

Today, October 10th is World Mental Health Day. For our inaugural blog post, let’s talk about stress and underage drinking. Specifically, let’s discuss binge drinking and how a recent study shows that teen drinking may damage one’s ability to cope with stress. Another finding of this study was that alcohol exposure in adolescents increased anxiety. This may be counter intuitive since we often think of reaching for a glass of wine or a beer when we are stressed or anxious to “calm our nerves.” To see how the opposite is actually the case, let’s dig into the findings. Alcohol, particularly with underage people, can increase both our anxiety and irrevocably change our ability to deal with stress.

First, let’s define binge drinking. Binge drinking refers to consuming several drinks within a short amount of time.  In the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control, “people 20 and under are more likely to binge on alcohol than are adult drinkers.” This is the exact time that our brains are developing the necessary connections to deal with stress.

So, what happens when we are stressed? The body produces cortisol. This stress hormone helps the body cope with the stress. Over time, the body should release less of this hormone, as our body learns to adapt to stress.

However, in the study, pre-adult rats who drank a lot, especially males, seemed unable to adapt to stress. This means the cortisol releases continued to be high. The reason this is harmful is because constant releases of cortisol can lead to long-term illnesses such as depression or anxiety. Thus, creating more of an issue with the very feelings that the alcohol was supposed to address.

In wrap up, while we think alcohol is a great way to chill out and deal with those things that give us stress and or anxiety, it actually causes changes in our brain that increase those very feelings. Or as author Laura McKowen wonderfully put it, “alcohol poured gasoline on my anxiety.”  I recommend reading her first-hand account here.

If you feel like your drinking has become out of your control, call the Massachusetts Substance Abuse Helpline – 1-800-327-5050 or find an AA meeting here.

If you are concerned about a loved one or someone you know Al-Anon is a great resource and source of help. Find out more here.