Alcohol is consumed to elicit several desired effects: coping/masking of feelings, pain reduction, lifting mood, relaxation, lifting of inhibitions/social acceptance. Relying on alcohol consumption to bring about these different emotional effects can lead to alcohol abuse or alcoholism.
Alcohol abuse or alcoholism are terms that are used interchangeably but have different meanings. Alcohol abuse is when someone drinks too much on occasion, and this habit frequently results in poor judgment and risky behavior. The use of alcohol, in this case, is more recreational and it not needed by the person to get through the day. Alcoholism is characterized by the same behaviors, but a person with alcoholism come to rely upon it for emotional support every day. When people use alcohol in this way and on a daily basis, they are no longer in control of the substance.
In either case, there are many negative physical and emotional impacts of alcohol, which are often exacerbated if the person already has other physical or mental disorders.
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What Are the Emotional Effects of Alcohol Consumption?
Emotions and moods affected by alcohol consumption can be grouped into three general categories, typically: painful feelings, happy feelings or feelings of relaxation.
When someone is using alcohol to deal with painful feelings, they are usually seeking to overcome emotions of fear, hurt, sadness, grief, jealousy, shame, embarrassment, guilt or loneliness.
For people who are using alcohol to manipulate emotions of happiness, they are usually attempting to heighten feelings of delight, thrill, general excitement, self-esteem, confidence and connection/belonging in social situations.
Use of alcohol for relaxation can seem to bring about a state of emotional calm. People report feeling sensations that include comfort, lack of concern about problems, and emotional numbness.
Regardless of why someone uses alcohol to alter their emotions, the effects of doing so are the same. Most importantly, alcohol affects the cerebral cortex of the brain. This is where thought processing and consciousness are located. Consuming alcohol causes an inability for an individual to think clearly. Alcohol also depresses the behavioral inhibitory centers, leading a person to be less inhibited and display poor judgment. While they may feel good for a while after consuming alcohol, the effects are always temporary and this often leads to additional consumption as the reason behind the initial use is still present.
Aside from the effect of blunting emotional pain for the person abusing alcohol, there are very serious and harmful emotional effects on people that are around the individual. Alcoholism can cause serious disruption in personal relationships and families. During a period of intoxication, the person’s emotions are sometimes raw and unreliable –resulting in anger, bouts of hysteria, crying jags 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 not being trustworthy, easily provoked, unreliable, and not worthy 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.
We surveyed 2,136 American adults who either wanted to stop drinking alcohol or had already tried to (successfully or not). We asked them about their alcohol use, reasons for drinking, alcohol-related outcomes, health and more.
Among those respondents who had tried to stop drinking at some point:
- 53.5% reported alcohol affected their physical health
- 44.5% reported alcohol affected their mental health
- 41.9% reported alcohol affected their relationships with loved ones
- 21.7% reported alcohol affected their abilities as a parent
- 25.3% reported alcohol affected their career or job
- 29.5% reported alcohol affected their hygiene
- 34.0% reported alcohol affected their finances
- 13.2% reported alcohol affected their legal status (incarceration, fines, etc.)
Those who qualified as heavy drinkers consistently reported higher percentages for each of these effects. Compared to other people in our study, heavy drinkers more than doubled their risk for a negative impact on their mental health, relationships and careers. They were 96% more likely to have their abilities as parents affected and 66% more likely to experience a legal issue.
When asked to rank these impacts, it didn’t matter if you drank heavily or not or tried to stop using alcohol or not: physical health, mental health and relationships were ranked as the biggest impacts on respondents’ lives.
Can the Cycle Be Broken?
Yes, the cycle of alcohol abuse can be remedied, often with the assistance of mental health providers and some other means of treatment -support groups, rehabilitation programs, etc. With proper treatment and supervision, the emotional issues that drive alcohol abuse can be addressed and new means of coping are learned.