Is the depiction of people using alcohol to take the edge off a bad day/week/month accurate?
March 16, 2007 4:55 PM   Subscribe

Is the depiction of people using alcohol to take the edge off a bad day/week/month accurate?

As a non-drinker, I'm curious about the effect alcohol has in these situations. Not the science behind it but rather does it really help people feel better? Or do they just drink enough to black out and then have a hang over in the morning, thus feeling worse? I don't mean when someone is really depressed, but just having a bad week or something like that. Also, is there a specific type of alcohol that is best or used most often for this purpose, or is it just their personal preference?

The reason I ask is there have been quite a few songs popular in the country genre recently which reference people using alcohol (usually whiskey) to "kill their pain" and such when they're depressed or lonely. I was taught in school that alcohol is a depressant, and will just make you feel worse (Of course, if it made people feel bad why the hell would they drink it? I suspect this was just said to keep us alcohol-free)

A search for alcohol and depression shows a thread where someone asked how people cope with depression, and a lot of people said they stay away from alcohol (among other things). I've always been under the impression that people do drink more when they're depressed. The only personal experience I have with people drinking is a few acquaintances who were complete assholes most of the time and even worse so when drunk.

So what's the deal?
(PS: I am proud of the fact that I can honestly say I've never drank more than a sip of champagne or wine at a family function, and am not considering ruining that. Nor am I depressed. I am just curious and I have no friends who drink.)
posted by jesirose to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Of course it is accurate. Ethanol is an anxiolytic in doses as small as 15 mg; it works on the GABA neurotransmitter system, the same as Valium and Xanax.

Too much for too long is bad for the mood, but a little nip now and again is quite pleasant. You should try it sometime - with your attitude, you're hardly likely to become addicted to it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:02 PM on March 16, 2007

Not only is it an effective anxiolytic, it also can be fun, especially in small to moderate amounts in social settings.
posted by owhydididoit at 5:05 PM on March 16, 2007

I'm drinking glass 2 of wine right now, and I feel awesome. I am thrilled with life. I love everybody.

However, if I to continue to drink into the great as I may feel in the moment, i'm gonna be fucking hurting tomorrow morning.
posted by tristeza at 5:06 PM on March 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Alcohol releases inhibitions. If you're tense, worried or worked up about something (for example, work) then drinking can make it easier for you tho think "to hell with worrying about work - it's Friday night! I'ma have me some fun!". I think this is generally considered to be a healthy type of alcohol use.

The problem with using alcohol to treat depression, or any major problems, is that it doesn't actually fix anything, so you have to stay permanently drunk if you want to avoid the stress. That tends to be a path to problem drinking.

So, yeah, to answer your question, the depiction is accurate: it's easy to get disproportionately wound-up about small issues, and many people find that drinking helps them relax and forget the issues for a while.
posted by nomis at 5:08 PM on March 16, 2007

Response by poster: ikkyu - I have tried a few things and I never liked the taste of anything. I didn't list in my "sips" beer, kaluha (?), and a few others. My husband and I don't drink for other reasons as well, but he did try some beer the other week and both brands he got we both agreed were nasty to our taste buds.
posted by jesirose at 5:08 PM on March 16, 2007

Yeah, the country songs are there for a reason: alcohol elevates a lot of folks' moods. As for why whisky specifically is mentioned: my guess is because it's a wonderful taste.

NB: as a non-drinker, you will not agree with that assessment.
posted by Greg Nog at 5:09 PM on March 16, 2007

When alcohol is called a depressant, it's not in the sense that it makes you sad/listless, it's just that it slows down the central nervous system, hence depressing your reactions. Having recently come out from college, I know that drinking certainly can have lots of different psychological effects on people, anywhere from laziness and passing out to wild partying to violence to friendliness. One thing is for sure though, they are uncoordinated when drunk.
posted by cschneid at 5:10 PM on March 16, 2007

Drinking in excess rarely kills any kind of emotional pain, in fact it often magnifies it. But my personal philosophy is that if you're going to be sad, you might as well be drunk too.

In small amounts, however, no. Often when I'm writing I have a shot or two to perk me up and make me feel more creative.
posted by Roman Graves at 5:10 PM on March 16, 2007

Tangent: In Italy and France the end-of-workday or beginning-of-evening drink has its own mealtime designation: aperitif, aka apero, and I miss it, a lot. Use as recommended. Results may vary. If you experience an apero of more than 4 hours consultez votre médecin.
posted by everichon at 5:14 PM on March 16, 2007

Best answer: After a long day of work, a beer definitely can take the edge off. For example, take today: I broke our e-mail server at work and nobody knows what happened or how to fix it. I've called all the experts and the gurus and in the end, it's going to require a full restore from last night's tape backup over the weekend. After a day like that, there's something relieving about coming home to my favorite beer and ease the stress. I can definitely feel myself "chill out." Though I've never smoked, I imagine it's how a cigarette would make me feel in similar situations.
They key is realizing that alcohol is not an appropriate gateway to happiness or relieving stress in the long term. It's a temporary vehicle of stress relief and if it gets to the point where I need a drink to get by, something's wrong.
posted by jmd82 at 5:17 PM on March 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For many people the ritual of a drink/smoke/whatever can be a psychological trigger to tell the brain it can switch off from whatever has been bugging it, to designate a cut-off from a focused to a relaxed state. This can be observed when a stressed person feels instantly mellowed by the first few sips of beer, long before any significant intoxication has started. You may have similar non-intoxicating rituals yourself; a workout or shower after work, or putting on a favourite cd, or somesuch thing.
posted by MetaMonkey at 5:30 PM on March 16, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best answer: 'Taking the edge off' is entirely different from 'killing the pain'. One of the things often lost on non-drinkers (and, with more disastrous results, new drinkers) is the broad range of levels of intoxication and how they're likely to affect the drinker immediately and eventually.

A beer after work is, for me, a great edge-off—both the mild depressant of the alcohol and the flavor experience of a cold, tasty beer help to declare the end of work and the beginning of leisure time. A couple beers before I play a show can get me loosened up and ready to be uninhibited in front of a crowd. A straight bourbon in the evening can be a tasty, soothing way to relax.

Socially, it's an effective lubricant, among strangers and friends. I enjoy going out for beers with good friends after a long week—not because nothing but alcohol will soothe us, but because we can all appreciate the communal experience of enjoying some hefeweizen and letting some of the workweek just roll off our backs.

New drinkers and non-drinkers generally find the taste of alcohol repulsive. It's hard, then, to appreciate the value of booze as an actual beverage experience. Non-drinkers don't go back for another taste, whereas new drinkers just force it down: it's drunk juice. This is also why ciders, hard lemonades, etc sell so well to college kids, and not so much to older drinkers—spoonful of sugar and all that.

Many depressed people drink, and otherwise functional people grappling with alcoholism can become depressed as a result of the toll it takes, but there's no inherent, inevitable causal relationship between alcohol ingestion and depression.

Country (and other) songs about drinking are a dime a dozen for a few reasons:
- drinking is a pretty universal (if not actually unanimous) activity, so people can relate;
- songs about heartbreak, loss, and depression are easy to write, because people can relate;
- people who like to drink like songs about drinking;
- drunk people like to sing;
- drunk people especially like to sing along to songs about drinking;
- there are a lot of different names for alcoholic drinks and idioms related to drinking, which makes coming up with good rhymes a goddam cinch.
posted by cortex at 5:34 PM on March 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Works for me. Cheers!
posted by SPrintF at 6:02 PM on March 16, 2007

A search for alcohol and depression shows a thread where someone asked how people cope with depression, and a lot of people said they stay away from alcohol (among other things)

Don't let the selection bias fool you. The majority of people drink responsibly and it is not issue, ergo they rarely discuss (no more than you would discuss your television viewing).

In addition to what others have said above, drinking can be a very personal experience. Notice the sheer variety of beers and liquors. Such a selection allows somewhat of a personal expression, of a beer or liquor you can call your own. By extension, you can in general, tell a lot about a person by what they drink. A Stella conveys sophistication and a sense of old-world sensibility, while a Coors conveys a working man pride. Sure a lot of it is marketing (as the prices are generally only a few dollars apart, so it is not much of a status symbol in that regard), but the truth is much a representation of your person as what you wear or what you drive. Such subtle social cues are important in forming the group identity that cortex states.

Also, is there a specific type of alcohol that is best or used most often for this purpose, or is it just their personal preference?

Beer is self-limiting and easier to stretch out over an evening. Especially for the better brews, they are rather high in calories and tend to fill you up. Vodka and the harder liquors are somewhat harder to gauge. I enjoy them, but I like being able to drink something and hard liquors are meant to be sipped. There is something about beer that is just, thirst quenching.
posted by geoff. at 6:27 PM on March 16, 2007

Nobody really likes getting drunk. People like being buzzed. People like being really buzzed. And people may like getting shitfaced with friends. But everyone who has ever drank a drink knows getting drunk sucks. Especially the next morning.

A beer or two to take the edge off after work helps release tension and give you a little push to get the stress out, and social intoxication is a helpful ritual unto itself, but someone who regularly gets literally drunk by themselves is in some sort of pain, whether they know it or not.

Of course, anything done to excess is a mistake.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:38 PM on March 16, 2007

I keep a bottle of bourbon on hand at all times for rough days, after which I'll have a couple drinks. On really, really shitty days I can always drink four or five glasses real fast, enough to knock me out and keep my mind from fixating on garbage. The next day is usually better (minus the mild hangover). A lot of things that seem terrible one night seem a little more manageable the next day. If I didn't drink, I would just think and think and think about it and be miserable, and probably cut myself.
posted by nathancaswell at 6:39 PM on March 16, 2007

Many people learn to use alcohol from time to time as a social relaxant or, as you indicate and people have described, an occasional response to stress. Of course some people go way past this, but because some people do is no reason to judge the many who occasionally like a beer with friends or a glass of wine with their dinner.

In moderate amounts, it's even good for you.
posted by zadcat at 6:57 PM on March 16, 2007

Cortex - I have to take issue with your assertion that there is no causal relationship between alcohol ingestion and depression. Alcohol is a depressant. A non-depressed person can become depressed after [a certain variable amount of] alcohol ingestion. When the alcohol is taken away, after some time, the depression tends to lift.

There is most certainly a causal link between the two.
posted by ryanhealy at 6:58 PM on March 16, 2007

Ryanhealy, in my experience, there is a practical link between the two. I know a lot of clinically depressed people who handle their issues when sober, but who lose their shit completely when drunk.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:00 PM on March 16, 2007

I'm a really anxious, overthinking person by nature, and after a really difficult day I like a glass or two of wine or a couple of bottles of beer. This much alcohol slows my thinking and gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, without making me slurry, wobbly or totally drunk. I'm not as mentally sharp and I definitely can't drive, but I can have a conversation, watch TV, surf the web, and type this comment right now. I've done homework after drinking a little, and it takes about 1.5 - 2 times as long and isn't quite as well organized, so obviously my mental functioning is diminished. But I certainly don't black out or get a hangover after just a couple of drinks.

Why do I do it? It's a good way to break unhealthy thought cycles. When I used to take anti-anxiety medicine, it had the same "break-out-of-over-thinking" effect, but it didn't give me the same warm fuzzy feeling and it had a different set of side effects.

As for what to drink: I think most alcoholic beverages are acquired tastes, and sometimes there are acquired associations that come with different drinks. For the most part, I don't recommend hard liquors. They're too strong and act too fast. There are some really goods beers out there, but it t takes a lot of tasting to get used to the idea of beer and to learn to differentiate flavors. If you like grape juice at all, I suggest you start with red wines. Go to a fancy grocery store with a wine steward and tell them you're an inexperienced drinker looking for a smooth, grapey wine. There's enjoyable wine at just about every price point, starting at $6 and going up into the hundreds and thousands of dollars. When you pay more, a lot of what you're paying for is marketing and a lot is complexity. Marketing is silly, and as a beginning drinker you really don't need to worry about complexity.

On the other hand, if you have other ways of dealing with stress, depression and anxiety, why drink? Just because other people like it, that doesn't mean you have to.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:11 PM on March 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I had a shitty week, including a herniated disc and much else besides. It's Friday night, I've had a glass of good white wine (the first of several, believe me) and I'm feeling MUCH better, thank you.
posted by unSane at 7:19 PM on March 16, 2007

Response by poster: no reason to judge the many who occasionally like a beer with friends or a glass of wine with their dinner.

I definitely try to keep that in mind. I know I sometimes come off as a snob or something because I don't drink and I am proud of not drinking. That doesn't mean I think poorly of the average drinker. As long as they can still have fun and get through life without drinking at every opportunity like some people I know, then I don't think any more OR less of them.

Thanks for the answers guys, good ones all around.
posted by jesirose at 7:27 PM on March 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Alcohol consumption depletes B12, the deficiency of which can cause some bad mental feelings, like paranoia, fatigue and disorientation, which I think often contribute to a situational depression. And I should know, I love getting wasted, though I don't really have an edge to take off. If I take a B-vitamin complex, my hangovers bloody vanish. I need to institute a "no vitamin, no drinky" rule... like the "one drink every 45 minutes" rule that I forget 45 mintues in, and the "no puking from booze" new year's resolution... that has held up with only one exception so far.... aw, screw it, let's drink.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:03 PM on March 16, 2007

Note that ryanhealey's comment on depression is not quite accurate: some people may get maudlin while drunk, but that's very different from clinically depressed people self-medicating with alcohol. In the latter case, the depression generally came first, and the alcohol serves as a distraction. [I assure you that most of them don't feel more depressed when drinking: as croutonsupafreak says, it can be a fairly effective way to short-circuit cycles of depressive thoughts or to make things like socialization tolerable. Unfortunately, these effects only last while you're under the influence...]

Me, I tend to like to have a beer in the evening because it's relaxing - like changing out of fancy clothes, and flopping down on a couch with a good book. I also really like the taste of beer, and am something of a beer snob. The warm buzz is nice, but the taste and the cold & refreshing nature of the beer [not to sound like an advertisement or anything] are important too. In party situations, I tend to be very tense. I over analyze everything, and find conversations very difficult. Drinking a few beers over the course of the night blunts my social anxiety in a pleasurable way. I'm speaking as someone who deals with both depression and anxiety, by the way: alcohol doesn't make me more depressed, and I don't overindulge. I enjoy it, but it's not what I use to solve my problems.
posted by ubersturm at 9:10 PM on March 16, 2007

"But everyone who has ever drank a drink knows getting drunk sucks. "

ummm, no.
posted by milarepa at 9:22 PM on March 16, 2007

Excellent question btw.

While I often have a drink at the end of the day, it's not necessarily to "take the edge off", but I have noticed something interesting in this department.
A friend has claimed often over the last few years that he's been so stressed at times that alcohol has no effect on him.
I didn't believe him until I had a very difficult argument with my SO. Company was coming over forthwith, and, not knowing how to compose myself in the short time alotted, poured myself a large belt of single malt and popped it down.

Now, normally I'm a pretty cheap date, but I swear, that drink had no effect on me in an altered state sort of way whatsoever, but it DID calm me right down.
Also made me feel (just a wee bit) like Marlowe, which, in moderation, is never a bad thing.
All that being said, I could have been enjoying a nice placebo effect from a dramatic gesture. Still not sure.
posted by asavage at 10:32 PM on March 16, 2007

Several people so far have confused "depressant" (causes you to become tired, slower heart rate, lowered reaction speed, generally relaxing) with "depression" (a profoundly sad mood that lasts longer that it ought to, usually caused by a chemical imbalance). Note that caffeine (the opposite of a depressant) is not a good treatment for clinical depression, and doesn't make you happier or sadder. Alcohol doesn't cause you to become depressed, it just has a tendency to make you feel slower. This is not to be confused with clinical alcoholism, which is an actual chemical dependency that moderate drinkers are unlikely to acquire without significant genetic predisposition.

I find a drink or two to be helpful not when I'm depressed in the sadness sense, but when I'm feeling stressed out. If something actually bad happened, I don't find drinking to be helpful, but if I'm just wound up from work and unable to relax, a glass of wine really helps just loosen up a little. Also, people who drink moderately (1-2 drinks/day for men) live longer and have a lower incidence of various diseases than non-drinkers or those who drink heavily, so one can write always it off as a health thing.
posted by 0xFCAF at 11:24 PM on March 16, 2007

Why do I do it? It's a good way to break unhealthy thought cycles. When I used to take anti-anxiety medicine, it had the same "break-out-of-over-thinking" effect, but it didn't give me the same warm fuzzy feeling and it had a different set of side effects.
Seconding croutonsupafreak, though I’ve never been on prescription anti-anxiety drugs. I also find that when I’m dry, I’m angrier, unhappier and have less faith in myself all the time. I dislike that I embarrass my friends now and then if I drink too much, but that’s infrequent and getting more so as I grow older and my judgement becomes better, so I’m okay with the trade-off.

Coming home from work after one more chaotic day, cooking a good meal and drinking some decent wine with it, makes me feel a lot happier with the world. So that’s a datum in favour of a ‘yes’ answer to your question :-) .
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 5:13 AM on March 17, 2007

There seems to be some confusion here that alcohol is a depressant, therefore it makes you "depressed" in the clinical sense. This is not so -- there are multiple meanings to "depress", such as "a depression in the ground", "depress a lever", "a weather depression", etc.

When alcohol is described as a "depressant", it means that it will slow your reaction times, slow your body's physiology, etc.

Mental depression refers to a whole set of feelings and emotions that people describe as "feeling down" or "feeling low", so we ascribe to them the term "depressed".

The two are not tied; they just share the similar root "depress" (ie, to lower).
posted by modernnomad at 7:40 AM on March 17, 2007

A glass or two of wine after a long, crappy day at work is a lovely balm for the nerves. It's a cliche because it's true. It eases tension, relaxes, softens, soothes...

As long as I stop at two.

I do really enjoy the sensation of being pleasantly lit. Being out and out drunk is not so much fun at all. The trick is staying in the glow without going too far.

(Friday night: Naked Grape Chardonnay and Chinese food.)
posted by Savannah at 8:08 AM on March 17, 2007

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