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Psychological dependence on alcohol

Alcohol affects the chemical balance in your brain. It can change your mood, feelings and behaviour, in a positive or negative way.

Most people drink because they like the way alcohol makes them feel, at least at the beginning.

For example, to:

  • feel more relaxed
  • cope with stress or boredom
  • get a buzz, which can change mood and feelings
  • lose inhibitions and feel more confident

Some people use alcohol to:

  • let out pent-up emotions
  • cope with depression
  • forget about difficult feelings or hide them
  • block upsetting or traumatic memories or emotional upset

In reality, alcohol is not a solution. Its effects are temporary.

How feelings are linked to dependent drinking

You might feel that your mood changes in a positive way when you drink. Because of this, you might want to drink regularly.

Having an instant way to change how you feel can become a powerful attachment.

But alcohol is a depressant drug. This means that it will not solve the problem and can make you feel worse in the long term.

Chasing the positive feeling

If you drink heavily over a period of time, the brain’s chemistry adjusts to the effects of alcohol.

You may start to rely on alcohol to relieve negative feelings or deal with problems.

You might need to drink more and more to get the desired positive effect. As you drink more, the risk of becoming dependent increases.

Tips to avoid alcohol tolerance

Being at risk of becoming dependent on alcohol

You may be using alcohol to try to solve a problem. If so, you are at risk of becoming psychologically dependent on alcohol.

Examples of being psychologically dependent on alcohol:

  • Alcohol is your normal way of coping with a difficult time.
  • You find it hard to socialise or enjoy yourself without alcohol.
  • You use alcohol to avoid being upset by negative feelings.
  • You use alcohol to cope with depression, anxiety or other mental health problems.

If you are worried about your alcohol use, take our alcohol test to find out what type of drinker you are.

How to avoid psychological dependence on alcohol

If you have an urge to drink, try to recognise how you are feeling, to see if there is a connection.

It may also be triggered by the way you are feeling or something that’s happening in your life.

Do not drink when you’re in a bad state of mind. Try to find a way to feel better before you have a drink. You could get some exercise or spend time with a hobby.

Face your feelings. You can try and avoid them, but they will not go away unless you face them and find a way to deal with them.

Talking to someone about what's troubling you

Look for real solutions and get professional support if you need to.

As well as getting professional support, try to:

  • have more drink-free time
  • build a life away from alcohol
  • socialise with your friends away from the pub
  • try different ways to relax
  • find activities and hobbies to fill your time

Look after your mental health. Spending time with people and doing physical activity can help.

Looking after your mental health

If you find it hard to cope without alcohol

You may need help if you:

  • are struggling to cope
  • are worried about your mental health
  • feel you cannot manage without alcohol
  • have severe physical withdrawal symptoms

You may need professional support or medicine to help you get back on track. Talk to your GP or visit our alcohol services directory to find a service.

Page last reviewed: 23 September 2022
Next review due: 23 September 2025