What Are the Emotional and Psychological Effects of Alcohol Use?

depressed man feeling the psychological effects of alcohol

Most people are aware that drinking alcohol has a slew of adverse short- and long-term consequences. If you've ever awoken with a headache, dry mouth, or nausea after a night of drinking, you're familiar with alcohol's short-term side effects. You've probably heard that long-term drinking can also cause liver cirrhosis and raise your risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. But you may not realize that drinking alcohol has emotional and psychological consequences, too. These can be severe, especially if the drinker has pre-existing mental health conditions.

Alcohol can cause mental health issues which aren't immediately apparent. Because these issues are frequently unseen, they can be more challenging to diagnose.

So what are the emotional and psychological consequences of alcohol consumption? Psychological side effects will vary depending on the individual and how much they have consumed, but they may include:

  • Mood swings
  • Panic attacks
  • Strong feelings of anxiety
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Feeling sedated
  • Lack of motivation
  • Feelings of sadness or depression
  • Suicidal thoughts

What Does Alcohol Do to the Brain?

The impact alcohol has on the brain is determined by several factors, including:

  • The number of drinks you have
  • How fast you drink
  • Any medications you may be taking
  • Your height and weight
  • The last meal you had

When you drink, alcohol passes from your stomach lining and small intestine into your bloodstream. Blood alcohol content, or “BAC,” refers to how much alcohol is in your bloodstream. As you drink, your BAC rises, and as the alcohol leaves your system, it falls again. Typically, men have higher BAC levels than women after drinking the same amount of alcohol. This is because men have higher water-to-fat ratios than women do. Adult men are approximately 60% water, while adult women are about 55% water.

The more you drink, regardless of your age or gender, the stronger the effects of alcohol will be.

Alcohol has the potential to alter not only the way your brain functions but also how it appears. This is because alcohol causes neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration, leading to brain shrinkage, or atrophy, and changes to your brain's size and shape.

These changes don't require consuming heavy amounts of alcohol. A 2022 study in Nature Communications reported that a "50-year-old who on average drinks a pint of beer or a glass of wine once a day effectively ages their brain by two years."

Alcohol also increases the risk for stroke, which can damage the brain. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reviewed several studies on the effects of alcohol on the brain and shared that "both men and women have similar learning and memory problems as a result of heavy drinking." Additionally, "male and female alcoholics both showed significantly greater brain shrinkage than control subjects" in computerized tomography studies.

While alcohol can sometimes make us feel good in the short term, if you continue to drink heavily, your tolerance will increase over time, requiring you to drink more and more alcohol to achieve the same effects. You will eventually become physically dependent on alcohol, which means that if you don't drink, you will experience withdrawal symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, shakiness, vomiting, sweating, and possibly even seizures or hallucinations, called delirium tremens (DTs). Experiencing delirium tremens is considered a medical emergency. If you think you might have DTs or are going through alcohol withdrawal symptoms, call 911 immediately.

Detoxing from alcohol alone is incredibly dangerous. The best way to cope with withdrawal symptoms is to detox under medical supervision at an inpatient treatment center or hospital detox unit. After detoxing from alcohol, you will want to set yourself up for success. For those seeking addiction recovery in Massachusetts, our team at Lake Avenue Recovery offers proven treatment for alcohol and drugs in a safe and welcoming environment.

When we drink too much, we risk experiencing a range of negative emotional changes. A treatment program like ours can give you the tools you need to face real-world challenges and prevent relapse or escalation of your alcohol use disorder.

How Does Using Alcohol Affect Our Emotions?

Because it controls our body, the brain is one of the organs most affected by alcohol. As alcohol enters your bloodstream and travels to your brain, it begins to affect your coordination, reflexes, judgment, and speech. As alcohol journeys through the body, it will also affect the limbic system, which is responsible for controlling emotions and behaviors. Alcohol can also affect the cerebral cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls thought processes and impulses. This is why people who have been drinking often make poor decisions, as they cannot think clearly and are more inclined to act on instinct.

We know that drinking alcohol can increase our dopamine levels and depress our central nervous systems, but what effect does that have on our emotions? Initially, alcohol acts as a stimulant, but acts as a depressant at higher levels, slowing down communication pathways in the central nervous system (CNS). The depressing effects of alcohol on the brain cause changes in your mood and behavior.

For the occasional drinker, drinking can be relaxing or cause euphoria. Alcohol impacts your serotonin levels, regulating anxiety, happiness, and mood. In low doses, it reduces stress and inhibitions. It also increases your endorphin levels, the "feel-good chemicals" which make you happy. Alcohol can make us feel more self-assured and less anxious in social situations, which is why you may notice that you are more talkative or confident when you drink.

Unfortunately, many people use alcohol as a coping mechanism to handle their problems, and there is a danger in using alcohol to deal with anxiety and stress. While drinking may provide temporary relief, using alcohol as a crutch will ultimately do more harm than good.

Excessive alcohol consumption can exacerbate stress and anxiety. The same processes that make alcohol so appealing also make it addictive. Your body's Central Nervous System can become unbalanced if you drink a lot of alcohol in a short period. Fear, stress, and anxiety can become overwhelming as a result.

Alcohol is not a healthy long-term solution for stress. Over time, drinking alcohol can increase feelings of depression or loneliness, especially if you are using alcohol to mask the other problems in your life. This is why it is so important to attend a treatment program that can help you learn new ways to deal with stress.

The type of alcohol you consume may also directly influence your emotions. While all alcohol is ethanol-based, different beverages may have other psychological effects. A 2017 study of almost 30,000 people found that people who drank spirits (like vodka, tequila, or gin) tended to feel more confident, restless, sexy, and aggressive. Those who chose to drink red wine tended to report feelings of relaxation or fatigue.

This same study uncovered that people dependent on alcohol are more likely to experience aggressive feelings "versus low-risk drinkers." The way different types of alcohol impacted participants' emotions varied by their sex, age, where they choose to drink, and even socioeconomic class. The study highlights the complex relationships between drink choice, emotional responses, and even our environment.

Drinking alcohol may provide you with temporary relief, but it will only cause you more problems in the long run. It can lead to long-term mental health issues like depression and anxiety, physical dependence, alcoholism, and even death.

If you need help with your drinking, don't hesitate to get in touch with our team at Lake Avenue Recovery at 855-923-2354.

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