Many of us drink to feel happy or relaxed, or to mask or avoid our feelings. Alcohol is a powerful drug that initially can seem like a one-stop solution to any situation. It can even act beneficially if used responsibly. However, when a person starts to abuse alcohol, the emotional effects it produces can turn against them.
In addition to affecting us physiologically, alcohol produces a number of emotional effects as well. In fact, it is often the emotional changes that alcohol brings that motivates people to drink. Put simply, when people learn to use alcohol to help them fix a short-term emotional problem, they put themselves in danger of a much more serious long term problem – addiction.
How We Use Alcohol to Manage Emotions
People tend to use alcohol either to instil happy feelings, soothe painful feelings, or produce relaxing feelings. It can help us express our emotions more strongly or mask those that we don’t want to show.
When people are happy, they reach for alcohol to celebrate and elevate their happiness. In social situations, alcohol can boost confidence and self-esteem, helping people bond and enjoy a good time. Alcohol may help someone shy to have a more comfortable time because it lowers inhibitions and allows them to have more fun.
When people are hurting, they use alcohol to cope, deal with their sadness, pain, shame, or loneliness. It can be used to overcome grief, fear, jealousy, or hopelessness. Alcohol can temporarily distract people from the situation. It can make things seem better, if only temporarily, than they actually are.
When people are stressed, they find alcohol as a go-to source for self-medication. It can help a person calm down, lower their level of concern, and relax. In such cases, alcohol acts as an emotional numbing agent. It allows people to avoid their emotions instead of heightening them.
…And How Alcohol Alters Our Emotions
Alcohol affects our brain in many ways. Although it alters all parts of the brain, certain areas are affected the most. The areas that alcohol works on are all tied to our emotional processing. Alcohol changes brain chemistry by disrupting hormones that balance our moods.
These changes tend to be temporary, unless someone starts to abuse alcohol. Then, they tend to linger long after the last drink.
This is why some people who drink a lot can seem unstable, not only when they’re drinking but when they’re sober. They may burst into tears or lash out in anger. Or, they may act “too happy” and appear manic. People who show signs of alcohol abuse are more likely to feel aggressive after drinking.
Contrary to a common belief, the type of alcohol you drink does not trigger different emotions. Rather, a person probably picks what they drink based on the mood they’re in. Or perhaps, on the mood they want to feel, based on preconceived ideas. For example, one person may reach for a glass of red wine to destress after work, another may down a shot of whiskey when they’re upset. Any many will drink Champagne to feel happy.
The extent of alcohol’s effect on one’s emotions is also determined by a number of other factors, including:
- Quantity consumed
- History and length of use
- Family history
- Genetic factors
- Psychological problems
- State of general health
The Negative Effects of Alcohol on Emotional Well-Being
We use alcohol to alter our emotions in many ways, so it makes sense that a misbalance of emotions can lead to alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, drinking can worsen negative emotions in the long-run. This can lead into a spiralling cycle into alcoholism.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on Emotions
Because alcohol has the potential to elevate emotions, it can distort people’s perception of a situation. For example, if they see a person with a slightly upset facial expression, the drinker’s mind may tend to exaggerate this into full-blown anger.
Alcohol’s effects on mood combined with decreased inhibition can create problems for anyone. A person may encounter social issues because they act in an unstable way, such as getting into fights.
It can also trigger thoughts of self-harm and suicide, especially if a person has depressive tendencies.
The day after drinking, a person may encounter additional issues, especially if they blacked out. This can be the aftermath of an embarrassing situation, frustration with oneself for behaving irrationally. Or perhaps they regret acts that resulted from poor judgement.
If a person is hungover and hasn’t slept well, they will also feel more sensitive than normal, and may feel irritable as a result. Hence, if they already made mistakes the night before, they can make things even worse the next day.
Long-Term Emotional Effects of Alcohol
Although some of alcohol’s effects are temporary, and can be resolved, repeated binges that result in shame and regret can gradually worsen your mental well-being. Thus, you may end up drinking to deal with the aftermath of all the problems caused.
Brain damage from heavy drinking can worsen your productivity and memory in the long-run. Over time, this can make you frustrated with yourself and lower your self-esteem.
Repeated self-medication drinking can also lead to isolation. This may be due to either ruined relationships or because you are ashamed of your poor coping skills. Isolation can contribute to depression and other negative feelings. In addition, you are likely to start drinking alone, which can lead to a worser emotional impact than drinking socially.
Social drinkers were more likely to experience emotional changes due to alcohol. Because alcohol served as a source to connect over, these emotions were mainly positive. However, solo drinkers were less likely to benefit from the emotional impact and more likely to simply feel the physiological changes.
Alcohol’s impact on emotion can linger when alcohol abuse comes into play. In another study, it was found that heavy drinking can contribute to emotional instability even after a person has detoxed. An alcoholic’s brain, even sober, is likely to exhibit an impaired perception of emotion after a long period of drinking.
Alcohol and Mental Health
Alcoholism is well-known to correlate with co-morbid mental illnesses. Many people with problems such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, or mood disorders turn to alcohol to self-medicate. However, alcohol and drug abuse can also create or exacerbate these issues.
With both depression and anxiety, alcohol can be used to temporarily relieve the unpleasant feelings. However, in both cases, long-term alcohol use tends to worsen them. Furthermore, if a person doesn’t have depression or anxiety but is predisposed to it, alcohol can act as a trigger.
In bipolar patients, alcohol is known to trigger depressive cycles. People with mood disorders can feel even more unstable after drinking.
And of course, if someone regularly turns to alcohol as a means of emotional support, they can easily cross the line into alcoholism.
Outside of Chemistry, Alcohol is Not a Solution
Although alcohol can contribute to our emotional well-being, it can also ruin it. While it is normal to have a drink in any situation in moderation, it should not be abused. If you find yourself reaching for a drink on a regular basis, whether you are happy, angry, or sad, you might have a problem.
People who turn to alcohol as self-medication are at risk of addiction.
In recovery it is important to address any underlying emotional or psychological issues in addition to the drinking. If you are diagnosed or prone to any mental health issue, you should seek a rehab with a focus on dual-diagnosis.
It may take years to overcome psychological damage that has been caused or worsened by drinking, so it is important to have the proper care and support.
Last updated & clinically assessed 30 March, 2022