Alcohol, anxiety and how secrets keep you sick
When LionHeart asked me if I’d consider sharing my story during Alcohol Awareness Week, my initial reaction was to politely decline.
I am a vocal person who talks regularly about mental health, depression, anxiety and other invisible illnesses - it’s one of the reasons I became an ambassador for LionHeart. But it seems to me that alcohol, however, remains a subject that is still not spoken about.
Alcohol use disorder carries with it shame, guilt and misunderstanding. There was part of me that was reluctant to focus on this particular subject for fear of social and professional suicide.
It’s a counterproductive reaction really. Because if people like me do not begin opening up and speaking honestly about such matters, then the stigma around mental health disorders - and particularly alcohol use disorder (AUD) - will remain.
And this is a bad thing because secrets keep people sick and discourage people from seeking help.
I am unable to recall the moment when it happened for me, the moment when I crossed that invisible line whereby the bottle of red wine on the Friday evening moved from a 'choice' to something that was 'necessary'. I had been dedicating all of myself to my career for many years, juggling the childcare with my full-time, high-pressure role and studying to progress further.
I lived my life 'off balance' and the stress of spinning so many plates would accumulate throughout the week. The Friday night bottle of wine was a welcome tool in helping me to breathe and relax into the weekend.
Over the years I have been extremely vocal about my own personal struggles with anxiety and depression, particularly to those within our industry. This has placed me in the fortunate position to help other professionals suffering the same. To date, however, I have not spoken about alcohol use disorder (AUD) or the vicious cycle that is created when AUD and anxiety disorders come together.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and, as such, the temporary effect of alcohol on the nervous system is that it calms it down. To those who suffer with generalised anxiety disorders, this can feel like a welcome relief. The negative cycle begins when the opposite effect occurs the morning after alcohol consumption, when the dreaded 'hang-xiety' hits. Whether anxiety causes alcohol misuse or if it’s the other way round is irrelevant. Research strongly concludes one thing: when the two disorders come together, they reinforce each other. One disorder makes the other worse and they also make each other harder to treat. In other words, if you suffer from anxiety and are using alcohol as a form of self-medication, you are at risk of falling into the anxiety-alcohol trap.
Like many professionals in the construction industry, as my career developed, my network grew, coupled with regular social events.
I initially started drinking alcohol to cope with feelings of stress and, at times, to relieve the anxiety at such social events. In contrast, the opposite effect was produced when the alcohol wore off the next day.
After some time in this cycle, my job performance suffered and my anxiety subsequently increased.
I started to suffer from panic attacks and my doctor prescribed medication to control these symptoms. Behind the scenes, when living in the anxiety-alcohol cycle, a person's brain chemistry changes and it becomes even harder to break the cycle.
I signed up for the 'Sober for October' challenge every year and my loss of control over alcohol first became apparent to me when I was unable to achieve the 31 days sober.
If you, like me, have seen that you are struggling with your drinking habits, and are beginning to use alcohol as a way of coping with or treating anxiety, it can be really difficult to know where to start. Research suggests that, since the two problems are intertwined, treatment for both is necessary. It can be harder to treat anxiety if you are still using alcohol as a coping mechanism. Conversely, if you quit drinking alcohol and do not treat the anxiety, you are at risk of falling back into old coping behaviours.
Fortunately, there are solutions to both illnesses. If anything that I’ve described resonates with you, know that treatment is possible and that you can find a balanced approach to living your life with freedom. But first, you must find the courage to ask for help.
My life now is very different from the life that I lived when I was in that cycle.
I have now learned healthy mechanisms for coping with personal and professional stresses which include reading, walking, exercise and breathing techniques. I am unmedicated and I rarely suffer with anxiety or depression. I am a Chartered Building Surveyor, a present mother to my two children and I am entirely abstinent from alcohol.
The absence of hangovers means that I can give my extra time to charity initiatives and have been in the position to share my story to help people who might be coping with similar challenges.
At first, I was reluctant to write this story, but if it helps just one other person, then it was worth it.
Ask for help. Don’t forget that surveyors and their families can talk to LionHeart.
And if anyone would like to talk to me in confidence, please contact me on LinkedIn and I will share my number.
Kelly Allen MRICS is a senior building surveyor who won her category in the 2019 Young Surveyor of the Year Awards. Since then she has used her platform in the profession to advocate for positive mental health and wellbeing and help those struggling with adversity. She is one of the LionHeart mental health ambassadors.