©YouCanHelp Publishing 2016

Doubtless, since time immemorial, men and women have used various kinds of mind altering substances to cover over or sublimate unwanted physical and emotional pain. And whilst we could spend all day arguing about whether life is more or less difficult in our modern world than it used to be, one thing we could agree on is that life still throws many painful experiences at us, especially of a kind that affect our mood or cause us significant anxiety or distress. 

The most common forms of self-medication now used in response to unpleasant experiences include, alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee. Unfortunately, the use of these psycho-active drugs can have unforeseen effects when it comes to mental health. And though some people are aware of what they are doing when they self-medicate (hence the term, ‘drowning my sorrows’), most tend to be unaware of the underlying purpose of their behaviour. Something frequently reported by women observing their male partners in distress is how they tend to elevate their consumption of alcohol without any conscious reason or intention.

Alcohol use is a widely-accepted part of Australian culture, and is the most commonly used mood-changing recreational drug. The misuse of alcohol is one of the chief causes of preventable death in Australia, is significantly implicated in social and domestic violence, and has a variety of negative effects on mental health. 

Alcohol is actually a central nervous system depressant and not a stimulant as popularly believed. It slows the activity of the central nervous system, affecting concentration and coordination, and slowing the response time to unexpected situations. It has a variety of effects which vary for each individual. In some people, it appears to give rise to aggression. In others, it has the effect of causing them to be amorous, tearful, or perhaps talkative. Even moderate inebriation tends to induce disinhibition, more intense moods and impaired judgement – which may mean that people react uncharacteristically or get involved in situations in which they wouldn’t normally become involved (such as verbal and physical conflict).

While alcohol in small doses may produce relaxation, a lowering of inhibitions, feelings of confidence, and more ‘outgoingness’, in larger quantities it can have a significant negative impact on mental and physical health.

Alcohol is commonly used as a form of self-medication, to help with sleep, and to dampen stress and anxiety. A large number of people who suffer insomnia use alcohol as an aid to sleep. And though it is effective in inducing sleep, it actually impairs sleep by causing multiple awakenings during the second half of the sleep period, and causes loss of overall sleep time, and daytime drowsiness. Sleep impairment can occur even when alcohol is consumed in the afternoon. Sleep impairment can also cause depression.

Research has also now clearly revealed a cause and effect relationship between alcohol abuse and dependence, and major depression. Clearly, alcohol not only potentially makes depression worse, it can actually cause depression.

As for stress and anxiety, though alcohol can temporarily dampen these, both are made worse through immoderate alcohol consumption. Other negative effects include difficulties of concentration and memory, sexual dysfunction, and a variety of cancers. Worryingly, alcohol intoxication also increases suicide risk by up to 90 times in susceptible individuals.

While there is no safe level of drinking, the National Health and Medical Research Council has developed a set of guidelines to help people make choices about how much they drink and the potential risks to their health. For healthy men and women, drinking no more than 2 standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from an alcohol-related disease or injury.

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