Work Stress and Alcohol Abuse: Is Your Job Driving You to Drink?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The recession of 2008 left a lasting impression on America’s economy, with scores of people losing their jobs, and those who remained working double-time to secure their employment status. This level of job anxiety continues today with many people working two and three jobs to make ends meet, and many others still unable to find employment. Under these conditions, the temptation to “wind down” from a day of work or looking for work with a drink in hand may make perfect sense, but can end up causing real problems down the road.

People who work high-stress jobs, multiple jobs, or whose self-image and livelihood is damaged through unemployment can easily fall into a never-ending stress cycle that only leaves room for quick fixes and fast reprieves when it comes to relaxation and needed rest. For these reasons, it’s important to stay alert to developing alcohol abuse patterns, because alcohol’s relaxing effects can become counterproductive and create new problems over time.

Job Stress & Its Effects

Job stress can take any number of forms, from the unreasonable and demanding employer to the pressures of the job itself, such as what emergency responders encounter on a daily basis. This level of ongoing exposure to stress creates prime conditions for anxiety symptoms to develop and persist.

The release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline throughout the brain and body is a normal response to stress and danger. This response should be switched off by the hypothalamus once the stressful situation has passed, but when stress is ongoing, the response is never switched off, leading to negative effects from higher than normal levels of adrenaline and cortisol. These include:

  • Fast heart rate
  • Fast respiratory rate
  • Increased blood flow to muscles and a corresponding decrease in blood flow to “non-essential” organs such as intestines

In the short term, these effects help our bodies to fight, flee, or freeze—ie, respond as needed to the current situation. When these effects continue over extended periods of time, however, they lead to heightened anxiety levels, irritability, depression, headaches, insomnia, stomach and digestive complaints, lowered libido, problems with fertility, erectile dysfunction, raised blood glucose levels that increase the risk of developing diabetes, and, of course, substance abuse.

Regardless of the stressor or its source, the body naturally seeks out ways to reestablish some sense of homeostasis rather than continue as is. These conditions set the stage for alcohol abuse patterns to take root in a person’s daily life when overstressed individuals discover that alcohol can relieve many of these unpleasant, ultra-stressed feelings—at least at first.

The Potential for Alcohol Abuse

As far as work stress goes, the potential for alcohol abuse runs considerably high when work becomes a constant source of stress, and anxiety levels continue to rise in response to the high levels of adrenaline and cortisol in the body. At this point, using alcohol to “take the edge off” is a recipe for disaster considering how the brain and body quickly develop a tolerance for alcohol’s effects over time.

As tolerance levels increase overstressed individuals find themselves needing to consume larger and larger quantities of alcohol more frequently to experience the desired relaxation effects.

Then, as drinking becomes more frequent and higher levels of alcohol in the body become the norm, individuals will develop a physical dependence on alcohol, so that they begin to suffer withdrawal symptoms when they do not drink.

With work stress being a day-in, day-out experience in a person’s life, it’s easy to see how this cycle of alcohol abuse can spiral out of control over time.

Alcohol Abuse Treatment Considerations

Using alcohol as a way to cope with work stress can soon start to spill over into other life areas, such as drinking to cope with difficult emotions or needing to drink to make it through work. Regardless of the reason, alcohol abuse doesn’t exist in a vacuum but rather evolves and grows into addiction, causing any number of medical and mental problems, with damaging effects that extend past the life of the drinker to impact everyone around them.