Alcoholism, Anxiety, And Yoga- Neurobiologic Benefits

By Curtis Buzanski, LMFT, LAADC

people in yoga class

In May 2007 Boston University School of Medicine published an article in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine saying they had MRI imaging showing as few as one yoga session elevated a person’s GABA levels. GABA, Gamma- Aminobutyric Acid, is our body’s inhibitory neurotransmitter that sends a message to our nervous system to relax. In a sense it’s our body’s natural anti-anxiety medication. When we’re anxious, our body sends signals to our brain alerting it. The brain then responds in an attempt to bring balance by releasing GABA. For those who suffer from chronic worrying, social anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, PTSD, generalized anxiety, and even depression, GABA is a very helpful neurotransmitter which may be lacking for those individuals. The addiction community is familiar with GABA through Xanax, Klonopin, and other benzodiazepines that are often abused. It is hard for us to know what is truly going on in each person’s brain but one can hypothesize that individuals with anxiety disorders may be deficient in GABA, or maybe their brain is not releasing enough to compensate for their level of emotional arousal. Either way they are not getting enough GABA. Interestingly enough, GABA is also one of the primary neurotransmitters that alcohol releases.

I’m sure we have all heard, or said, “I just need a drink to take the edge off.” What they are really saying is, “I just need some GABA to take the edge off.” GABA helps loosen us up, relax, open up, and stay grounded. In times of stress it is a key factor in helping us stay balanced, something addicts struggle with. They also are notorious for having a fragile stress tolerance and poor affect regulation, so when there isn’t balance, they are stressed. Every emotion, even the positive ones, can be sources of stress for these individuals. Addicts not only struggle managing emotions but their window for tolerating emotions is diminished, throwing them into emotional flooding faster and easier than others with a stronger stress tolerance. In my practice, a majority of the alcoholics I work with carry around excess anxiety, fear, worry, insecurity, and restlessness, and often turn to alcohol to provide the GABA to help tolerate their stress. Unfortunately though this only makes matters worse.

Alcohol actually depletes our GABA reserves, draining it and flooding us with a potent release of the chemical. If this is repeated over time, the brain actually becomes deficient in GABA, so when alcohol is not in their body they have higher anxiety. If this time of heavy drinking starts at a young age while the brain is still developing then it can possibly impact the brain permanently. The brain comes to expect the user to provide it with this external source of “GABA” so it stops replenishing it on its own. So the vicious cycle for most alcoholics is they drink to feel better, which depletes them, when sober they feel bad, so they drink to feel better, and so on, and so on. It is it any wonder by the time people enter into recovery why they might have depression or anxiety? If they didn’t have it before they most certainly can now. So what do we do about it?

It’s easy to jump to medications in these situations. Xanax, Klonopin, and Ativan are just a few of some commonly used anti- anxiety medication. While medication has its place, many people in recovery come from a history of being wrongly diagnosed, over medicated, under medicated, and passed around so they can be reluctant. Not all doctors are educated on addiction and can easily make the mistake of prescribing a medication that can be abused. Not all fault falls on the professionals however, addicts are gifted manipulators after all. Needless to say, many people in recovery are skeptical of medication and often seek alternative ways of healing.

You can actually go to your local health food store and purchase the amino acid GABA in a pill or dissolvable form. Some people do find relief from amino acids; however they have a hard time crossing the blood brain barrier so not everyone does. Reading any one of Julia Ross’ books can get you a great deal of information on amino acids, diet, and incorporating them into recovery. With that said, most of the research I have read says amino acids are best absorbed intravenously, which is an issue for most people. Now you can see why the findings by Boston University are so significant for people in recovery.

Alcoholics can not only activate but elevate the exact same neurotransmitter they love getting through alcohol. Alcohol beats up on their GABA system making it worse, in turn creating or exasperating a GABA deficiency, and yoga is scientifically proven to elevate GABA. Not only does it elevate GABA, but it does so without all the negative side effects of alcohol. You can’t get a DUI from yoga! Not only does yoga help increase GABA, it also teaches tolerance, compassion, mindfulness, and self care. All of which can be extremely healing for alcoholics with a busy mind, excessive guilt, and constant shame.

Some of you reading this might be resistant to the idea of yoga. Be open, there are many different types and levels. Ask yourself what lengths you went to get intoxicated? Is yoga anywhere near some of those lengths? Probably not. Since many addicts come to me depleted, exhausted, beaten down, dwelling on the past and obsessing on the future, I recommend they start with a restorative yoga first. Learn the fundamentals about just being and relaxing. Sometimes the advanced classes can bring up more anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, and discouragement. With clients that have a competitive nature I tell them to check their competitive spirit at the door. It is not about being the best, even teachers that have been doing yoga for a long time will call themselves practitioners because they are always learning. I challenge you to incorporate this in your life and feel the benefits it has to offer. Yoga has been an integral part in my own self-care.

Curtis Buzanski is a licensed therapist and addiction counselor from Sacramento. Trained in EMDR as well, his focus is primarily working with dual diagnosis clients and their families. He has been in the addiction field for 17 years beginning a year after he entered recovery himself. He is passionate about attachment theory, interpersonal neurobiology, and developmental psychology and the connections they make with addiction. In addition to a full time private practice he is an Adjunct Faculty with The University of San Francisco teaching graduate level courses in their Marriage and Family Therapy program.