People may use alcohol to cope with emotional pain or improve social functioning, but alcohol abuse can actually make emotional and social issues worse.
Article at a Glance:
- People may drink to help them cope with painful feelings, feel relaxed or be more social.
- While alcohol can provide some social and emotional benefits, these are temporary.
- With long-term alcohol abuse, mental and emotional health are likely to worsen.
- Alcohol addiction can lead to difficulty with relationships, as well as mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
There are many reasons why a person may choose to drink. They may turn to alcohol to cope with painful emotions, mask feelings, reduce pain, lift mood, achieve a state of relaxation, reduce inhibitions or gain social acceptance.
The emotional effects of alcohol can be especially strong among those who have an existing mental or physical health condition. Over the long term, however, alcohol can make these conditions even worse.
Alcohol and Emotions
Alcohol affects the brain’s cerebral cortex, which is where thought processing and consciousness take place. Alcohol consumption, especially in large quantities, interferes with rational thought. Drinking also depresses the behavioral inhibitory centers, causing a person to have less inhibition and display poorer judgment. This lack of inhibition often leads people to drink more than they otherwise would.
While you may feel good for a while after consuming alcohol, the effects are always temporary. A person may feel positive emotions while under the influence, but the emotional factors that led to alcohol abuse still remain after the intoxication fades.
Emotions and moods affected by alcohol can usually be grouped into three general categories, including:
- Painful feelings: When someone uses alcohol to deal with painful feelings, they are typically trying to overcome emotions of fear, hurt, sadness, grief, jealousy, shame, embarrassment, guilt or loneliness.
- Happy feelings: People who use alcohol to manipulate emotions of happiness are usually attempting to heighten feelings of delight, thrill, general excitement, self-esteem, confidence and connection/belonging in social situations. Research suggests that these motives are a common reason for drinking, especially among younger people.
- Feelings of relaxation: Alcohol can seem to bring about a state of emotional calm. People report feeling sensations that include comfort, emotional numbness and lack of concern about problems. These feelings occur because alcohol increases levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA, which inhibits nervous system activity and creates a calming effect.
People struggling with emotional pain may drink alcohol to achieve a state of numbness. Given the effects of intoxication, it’s possible to achieve temporary numbness by drinking. Excessive alcohol consumption can even lead to blackouts and lapses in memory.
While blacking out can certainly help a person achieve a state of numbness, drinking to the point of a blackout is dangerous. During a blackout, a person loses control of impulses and has difficulty with rational decision-making. This increases the likelihood of risky activities, such as driving under the influence or having unprotected sex. The state of numbness that comes with excessive alcohol consumption is outweighed by the risks that come along with it.
Because alcohol increases GABA levels, drinking can have a relaxing effect on the body. As a result, some people may use alcohol to calm their emotions, but these calming effects are also temporary.
If a person increases their alcohol use over the long term and develops a tolerance, it will take greater amounts of alcohol to achieve the same calming effects. When a person with alcohol tolerance stops drinking or tries to cut back, they may experience withdrawal symptoms because their body is used to the presence of alcohol and its effects on GABA levels. Without the alcohol needed to increase GABA levels, the body undergoes withdrawal, leading to symptoms like anxiety.
Ultimately, the emotional flatness that comes with alcohol abuse disappears, and it becomes even harder for a person to regulate their emotions.
Alcoholism and Emotional Abuse
Alcohol addiction can cause serious disruption in personal relationships and families. During a period of intoxication, a person’s emotions are sometimes raw and unreliable, resulting in anger, bouts of hysteria, crying fits or even physical or verbal abuse. This leads others to avoid the individual out of fear or due to their own inability to cope.
The person abusing alcohol is often seen as being untrustworthy, easily provoked, unreliable and unworthy of respect. Unfortunately, these are often some of the emotions that lead to alcohol abuse in the first place. As a result, the cycle of abuse continues and feeds into itself.
Long-Term Mental Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol use may provide temporary relief to people struggling with mental or emotional health. Over the long term, however, alcohol abuse can make these problems worse. Using alcohol as a way to cope can lead to an alcohol use disorder — the clinical term for alcohol addiction.
People with an alcohol use disorder show certain symptoms, such as continuing to drink even when it affects physical and mental health or causes problems in relationships with friends and family. In other words, the problems a person tries to fix with alcohol may actually worsen as an addiction develops.
Other long-term consequences of alcohol abuse include social problems, issues with learning and memory, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Overall, alcohol has a negative effect on mental and emotional health, even if it temporarily numbs emotions or creates feelings of euphoria.
If you are struggling with an alcohol addiction and experiencing mental and emotional health concerns, The Recovery Village is here to help. We have treatment centers in multiple locations across the country, as well as an easy-to-access teletherapy program. Contact us today to learn more.
Banerjee, Niladri. “Neurotransmitters in alcoholism: A revie[…] and genetic studies.” Indian Journal of Human Genetics, March 2014. Accessed August 29, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.” May 11, 2021. Accessed August 29, 2021.
Leite, Leticia, et al. “Emotional traits and affective temperaments in alcohol users, abusers and dependents in a national sample.” Journal of Affective Disorders, July 2014. Accessed August 29, 2021.
Liang, Jing; Olsen, Richard W. “Alcohol use disorders and current pharma[…]e of GABAA receptors.” Acta Pharmacologica Sinica, 2014. Accessed August 29, 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.” Alcohol Alert, October 2004. Accessed August 29, 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts.” March 2021. Accessed August 29, 2021.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed August 29, 2021.
New York State. “How Alcohol Affects the Brain.” Accessed August 29, 2021.
Sjodin, Lars; et al. “Drinking motives and their associations with alcohol use among adolescents in Sweden.” Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, March 4, 2021. Accessed August 29, 2021.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.