I had to go to rehab to realize I had anxiety
This article is part of a content partnership with our friends at Tempest, the premier evidence-based digital recovery platform.
âHave you ever thought that you might have an anxiety disorder? “
These are the words, spoken by my very first therapist, that changed my life and suddenly gave meaning to everything.
It was July 2015, and I had just entered a 30 day alcohol use disorder (AUD) rehabilitation program after drinking from my dream job.
I thought I was there to understand why quitting drinking was so difficult for me; instead, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) within days.
And it turns out, I’m not the only person diagnosed with mental health seeking treatment for alcohol use.
A concurrent disorder occurs when a person has both a mental health problem and a substance use disorder.
According to the 2018 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Survey of Drug Use and Health, approximately 9.2 million adults in the United States have a concurrent disorder.
Co-occurring disorders can involve any of the following mental health problems:
Although I was shocked to receive two diagnoses at the same time, it is actually quite common.
âMany people with alcohol use disorder have a concurrent mental health diagnosis and vice versa, so there’s a strong correlation,â says Ruby Mehta, director of clinical operations at Tempest, a digital program that helps people to stop drinking.
“Among Tempest members, we find that over 60% of people who meet the criteria for binge drinking suffer from concurrent anxiety and depression.”
For the first 29 years of my life, I didn’t know I was anxious. I thought my over-thinking and stress that never seemed to go away was just part of who I was and how I functioned.
To be honest, I never really thought about the word âanxietyâ until my therapist brought it up at one of our first meetings in rehab.
She pointed to my fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, restlessness, and uncontrollable feelings of worry as possible symptoms of GAD. During this time, I just thought that I was someone who had been stressed out every day since I was 15 and that all of this was completely normal.
âBecause anxiety is often difficult to distinguish from everyday stress, anxiety disorders often go undiagnosed and untreated,â explains Mehta. “A lot of people drink to deal with anxiety or depression, so it’s very possible that people will be diagnosed with AUD before a mental health diagnosis.”
It was certainly the case for me; I knew I had a drinking problem long before I knew I had an anxiety problem.
But the worst part about getting this diagnosis was the sudden realization that my binge drinking had made my anxiety worse.
Looking back, I now understand that I had had anxiety since at least puberty, but didn’t start drinking problematically until my mid-20s. Still, I can watch the trajectory of my alcohol use and see exactly how my anxiety increased over those years – even though I thought alcohol relieved my anxiety.
âYes, alcohol consumption worsens anxiety in the long run,â Mehta says. âIn the short term, alcohol consumption can decrease anxiety as GABA and serotonin levels initially increase. These neurochemicals make people calm and content. ”
But this positive effect does not last long. Mehta continues, âAfter the initial ‘buzz’ subsides, anxiety may increase as GABA, serotonin, and other relaxation-promoting endorphins are depleted. ”
Plus, she adds that the stress hormone CRF is released when alcohol leaves your body, which increases anxiety.
Looking back, I’m not at all surprised that my drinking and my anxiety both worsened at the same time. They fed each other in a catch-22 ruining my life.
Growing up in a Cuban American household, my family never spoke about mental health. There was a lot of stigma associated with being called âla locaâ (the madman) in the family.
As a result, anxiety and depression were never discussed, although I was most likely terribly depressed and anxious as a teenager.
Around the age of 16, I attempted suicide – what I now recognize was overwhelming anxiety about grades, school, and pleasing my high performing parents.
When I got to college, I dealt with much of my anxiety by forming a community of tight-knit friendships. But as friendships changed and faded into my 20s, my network of friends suddenly shrank and my anxiety started to suddenly return.
What did I do in response? I drank.
I have used alcohol as a coping mechanism, just as our culture often teaches us. I don’t even remember the first time I saw or heard someone use a glass of wine for stress relief, but I clearly got the message.
Soon that glass of wine turned into two, and then one bottle per night turned into one of those extra-large bottles. All. Alone. Night.
But I didn’t realize I was using alcohol as an unhealthy coping mechanism until I ended up in rehab, although Mehta says there are early signs to identify if you’re worried about your health. alcohol consumption.
âYou can identify the signs that alcohol has become an unhealthy coping mechanism by looking at Why you drink, âMehta says. Some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you drink to escape a negative emotion?
- Can you have a good time or have fun without alcohol present?
âIf you notice that you need alcohol for fun or socializing, or that you use it to escape negative feelings, it could reach unhealthy territory,â Mehta continues.
“Later signs of worsening AUD include withdrawal symptoms the day after drinking alcohol – things like shaking, restlessness, nausea, and also noticing that you need to. larger amounts of alcohol to make you feel “buzzing”. “
The day my mom took me to rehab was the worst and the best day of my life.
Although my parents ignored my mental health issues as a teenager, they knew I needed help long before I did – and I’m glad I got it, thanks to a fantastic therapist. Since then, I have continued to see a therapist for my anxiety disorder, but it has not been easy.
Getting diagnosed with mental illness at the age of 29 is inevitably frightening. On the one hand, I was dealing with problematic alcohol consumption, which I knew I could one day recover from. On the other hand, however, I realized that anxiety would likely be with me for the rest of my life, even if it wasn’t as intense.
But in the end, I’m glad I got to learn more about my anxiety because it helped me know who I am today.
While I wish I had questioned my relationship with alcohol long before I needed any serious help quitting drinking, I now recognize that this is simply the path my life had to take.
Still, if I had to do it again, I would at least have thought about why I needed to drink wine at the end of a “hard day” and why this consumption increased over time.
Maybe if I had known I was using alcohol to cover up my negative feelings, I would have reassessed my drinking much sooner. Or maybe I would have even seen a therapist long before I had to – and started taking steps to deal with my anxiety more effectively.
Irina Gonzalez is Head of Content Marketing at Tempest, a digital membership program that lets you quit drinking and live alcohol-free. She is also a freelance writer covering parenting, recovery and Latinx culture and the creator of the Pandemic Mama podcast. His work has been published in over 50 publications, including The Washington Post, O! Oprah magazine, parents and more. She is a new resident of Denver, where she lives with her husband, a brave toddler, and their furry babies. You can find more of her work on her portfolio site or by following her on Instagram.