Alcohol & Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

It’s surprisingly common for people to self-medicate with alcohol when they have obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This is because people associate the effects of alcohol with reducing obsessive-compulsive symptoms, but in actual fact, in the long run alcohol exacerbates the condition.

In the UK, over one million people have obsessive-compulsive disorder. [1] Where it exists, alcohol use disorder is more likely to develop. The two can lead to a very poor quality of life with serious health risks.

What is Obsessive-compulsive Disorder?

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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder. It’s characterised by obsessive fears, intrusive thoughts and mental images.

This is a repetitive experience and leads to compulsive behaviours in order to try and ease and manage the fears.

As time goes on, ritualistic behaviours develop and a person will feel they have to carry these out in order to prevent the triggering fear from occurring.

OCD can be debilitating. It greatly negatively impacts a person’s life. It alters a person’s ability to maintain regular activity and uphold responsibilities.

The most usual themes that unwanted thoughts gravitate around include hurting yourself or others, sex, and religion. People can also commonly have obsessive thoughts about germs and ritualistic behaviours around washing their hands.

Another theme is when thoughts and behaviours are linked to misplacing and forgetting things; people might keep checking.

Causes of OCD

There is no one cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder but there are common risk factors that increase the likelihood of it occurring.

These include:

  • The pre-existence of another mental health condition
  • Genetic factors – other family members might also have OCD
  • Brain structure – the physical structure as well as what’s going on with serotonin levels
  • Substance use including alcohol and other drugs
  • Environmental factors – for example, a trauma in childhood can increase the likelihood

OCD is linked to the neurotransmitters in the brain. Sometimes too many are released or too many are received. It’s particularly linked to serotonin, the mood enhancer.

For people with OCD, there are reduced levels of serotonin in the brain.

The Effect of Alcohol on OCD


When people drink alcohol GABA amino acid is stimulated in the brain. This chemical lowers inhibitions and relaxes a person. Alcohol can induce feelings of euphoria; it lifts the mood by triggering a release of serotonin.

When this happens, in the immediate moment, alcohol is often described as relieving stress and anxiety.

For a person with OCD, this feeling of relaxation and easing of anxiety can bring a feeling of relief. The immediate effects of alcohol can ease fears and calm the need to practise compulsive behaviours.

While alcohol might offer temporary relief, it has to be emphasised that this is short-lived because of how it affects the brain and body after the initial moment.

Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, it’s a sedative and causes drowsiness. As it leaves the system OCD symptoms can worsen because of the drop in serotonin.

Serotonin levels will actually fall lower than they were before the alcohol consumption. This lowers mood during a hangover and can trigger anxiety, this effect is more pronounced when people have OCD.

For people who drink heavily or who start to suffer from alcohol abuse, there is a huge depletion of GABA amino acid in the brain caused by the large release of it during the drinking session. The drop in alcohol can lead the mind and body into “fight or flight” mode and this can lead to panic attacks after drinking.

The Link Between OCD & Alcohol Use Disorder

There is often a link between various mental disorders and addiction. In terms of OCD and alcohol use disorder (AUD), this is no different.

Research shows that “individuals with OCD report 7.5% to 38% comorbidity with AUD, showing a strong overlap of the disorders, with most studies in the 30% range”. [2]

This shows a very strong relationship. Despite the negative impact of alcohol on OCD, people clearly return to it to try and manage symptoms. Therefore, the likelihood of problematic alcohol use is increased.

When this occurs, professionals in the addiction and mental health fields refer to it as a dual diagnosis.

The Risks of Using Alcohol to Self-Medicate


There are obviously risks associated with alcohol consumption. This is because it’s a substance that has a direct impact on the brain and the body.

The effects of alcohol are seen in its physical manifestations as well as through mental health issues. Drinking regularly increases the risks of the following:

  • Mood swings
  • Needing alcohol to function “normally”
  • Change in thoughts and behaviours as alcohol becomes the focus
  • Breakdown of relationships
  • Cravings, building up a tolerance to alcohol, and withdrawal
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Increased risk of illnesses and diseases
  • Moderate and severe addiction and dependency
  • Developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (alcohol-related dementia)

The World Health Organisation reports that there are 3 million deaths a year that are caused by alcohol. [3]

More About Dual Diagnosis

When a substance use disorder develops linked to alcohol or any other psychoactive substance, it can lead to the development of mental health symptoms because of the effects on brain chemistry and hormones that regulate thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.

Likewise, when a person has a mental health condition it can lead to alcohol or drug use as people use it to self-medicate. It’s often difficult to ascertain what condition led to the other.

Within a professional context, staff usually refer to it as a dual diagnosis or comorbid condition.

The most effective treatment you can get for alcohol use and obsessive-compulsive disorder is through a rehab clinic. This way you get access to medications and therapies that address both conditions.

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder & OCD


At private rehab clinics, staff understand how common it is for alcohol use to exist alongside mental health conditions such as OCD. It’s therefore the case that you can find clinics that specialise in treating the two alongside each other.

This gives you the most solid foundation in terms of recovery.

When withdrawing from alcohol, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours can return. This can feel very distressing. Unfortunately, as well as this, OCD symptoms are quite often linked to shame and addiction is surrounded by stigma.

Living with both and trying to establish a place of balance is a complex mental, physical and emotional process. At rehab, you’ll be supported to identify the causes of alcoholism as well as grow in self-awareness about how to manage OCD more effectively and with self-compassion.

1. The Physical Detox at Rehab

To start with, a residential stay at rehab begins with a detox. This is essential in the treatment of alcohol dependence symptoms.

Alcohol withdrawal results in the following:

  • Shaking and sweating
  • Mood swings, including severe anxiety
  • Nausea, sickness, and diarrhoea
  • Delirium tremens
  • Seizures

The detox period lasts around ten days and includes a Librium prescription. This is the medication used to safely wean patients off alcohol.

Depending on your mental health and specific requirements, the on-site doctor might also prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors to treat mood, anxiety and OCD.

2. Psychological Support at Rehab

Of course, long-term abstinence requires knowledge of how to manage cravings and symptoms around OCD. Recovery support includes behavioural treatments, psychological therapies, and holistic activities. Some are offered in a group setting, others on an individual basis.

The most commonly used therapy to treat alcohol use and OCD is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This is where you learn skills to manage your thought processes in order to affect behaviour. Within CBT, there’s a therapy known as exposure and response prevention (ERP); this is specifically used to reduce anxiety for people with OCD.

Your treatment plan will be developed by staff and will include various relevant therapies including:

Final Thoughts…

OCD is linked to a risk of substance misuse. Chronic alcohol use is especially linked due to its perceived effects of relaxation and improved mood. However, due to the way alcohol affects brain chemistry, it actually worsens the experience of OCD.

Some people develop alcohol use disorders because they return to alcohol to try and self-medicate around OCD symptoms. When this happens a dual diagnosis is often identified and treatment is required to address both conditions alongside each other.

The most effective treatment approaches are found at rehab clinics. To find out what your local options are, contact Rehab 4 Alcoholism today.


Below, we have included some frequently asked questions and their associated answer:

Can OCD be triggered by alcohol?

Alcohol use disorder is a condition that’s often diagnosed alongside OCD. People often turn to alcohol to try and alleviate symptoms of OCD, however, alcohol actually exacerbates anxiety and panic and can make OCD behaviours worse.

What does alcohol do to people with OCD?

Alcohol use has serious physical health risks including cancer, alcohol-related dementia, and liver failure. It’s linked to anxiety and panic attacks and can worsen the obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours of OCD.

Is there a link between OCD and alcoholism?

Yes, there is a link between OCD and alcoholism. Research shows that around 30% of people with OCD also have an alcohol use disorder.

Does alcohol make OCD symptoms worse?

Yes, alcohol can make OCD symptoms worse because of its effects on the serotonin and GABA amino acid levels in the brain.

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