Why Are Alcoholics Often Mean?

Alcohol use disorder, or AUD, is not only detrimental to the individual struggling with their drinking. AUD affects everyone around them, from loved ones to colleagues to friends. In fact, drinking too much can not only cause lasting physical damage but can leave behind deep emotional scars, too. People with AUD are often verbally abusive, emotionally volatile, and may struggle with serious depression, anxiety, and anger.

Understanding why people struggling with alcoholism are so often angry, emotional, and depressed requires understanding how chronic alcohol use affects the brain on a physical and chemical level.

Alcohol and the Brain

When alcohol enters our bloodstream, the brain responds by increasing its production of dopamine, a “feel good” chemical that occurs naturally in our bodies when we engage in a pleasurable activity, like exercising or eating. Alcohol increases our brain’s production of dopamine, though, at a higher rate than we can achieve naturally.

As a result, we’re often left with a desire to consume alcohol again and continue the production of these high dopamine levels. This can lead to a condition called tolerance, in which our brain requires higher levels of the same substance to achieve the original effect. Once we’ve reached tolerance, it’s very easy for us to become addicted to the substance, leading us to make risky or dangerous decisions to further our consumption.

In addition to producing high levels of dopamine, continued alcohol use also begins to reshape the way our brain works and reacts. Among the functions of our brain that are reconfigured by chronic alcohol use include:

  • Decision-making: One of the most notable impacts of alcohol abuse is its effect on decision-making. Individuals struggling with their alcohol use may make rash, impulsive decisions, take actions they later regret or say hurtful or demeaning things when intoxicated that they don’t remember when sober. Much of this behavior is due to alcohol’s impact on a part of the brain called the cerebral cortex, which governs our decision-making, rational thought, and ability to take in and process information.
  • Memory: People with AUD may suffer frequent “blackouts” while drinking, where they consume so much alcohol that they no longer remember hours in their day. Alternatively, they may have a hard time remembering their actions after a period of drinking, leading them to deny or laugh off emotionally or physically abusive behavior that took place under the influence. Memory issues from alcohol are triggered by imbalances in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that regulates our memory and learning.
  • Speaking: From slurred words to mixed-up sentences, people under the influence of alcohol often struggle with understanding or interpreting verbal speech or speaking themselves. This is because alcohol acts as a depressant, slowing down parts of the brain and body, making it more difficult for individuals to speak, move, or think as quickly as they would when sober.
  • Movement: People who have drank too much may have trouble with their balance, movement, or vision, as well as their fine motor skills. This is why people under the influence of alcohol should never drive or try to conduct other high-risk activities. Alcohol affects the cerebellum, the part of the brain that governs balance, coordination, and movement.

Long-term alcohol use can worsen all of these impacts on the brain. Some studies have even indicated that chronic alcoholism can both shrink the brain and contribute to the development of dementia and other forms of memory loss.

Alcohol and Anger

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment explored the connection between anger and alcohol use. As seen above, alcohol can severely impact areas of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and decision-making, as well as removing inhibitions and making people with AUD more likely to engage in behavior they would not when sober.

Researchers wanted to explore the connection between alcohol and anger, and whether individuals who sought treatment for alcohol use also reported higher levels of anger-related behavior. Among their findings:

  • People with AUD show higher signs of anger than those who do not have an AUD
  • Higher levels of anger often leads to higher levels of alcohol consumption
  • Alcohol appears to make aggressive behavior more likely
  • People who score higher on tests for anger are more likely to become aggressive when under the influence of alcohol

Another study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found a connection between alcohol, anger, and the ability to consider future consequences. In a study with more than 400 mixed-gender participants, researchers asked participants to consume portions of alcohol and then compete in a test against another study participant. If one participant performed better than the other, the winner would deliver an electric shock to the loser. (In reality, there was no electric shock delivered).

“People who were present-focused and drunk shocked their opponents longer and harder than anyone else in the study,” researcher Brad Bushman of Ohio State University told ScienceDaily.

While the study indicates that individuals with an inclination to consider the present over the future are more likely to display angry reactions while drunk, it’s clear that alcohol has a link to anger.

Luckily, addiction treatment professionals are aware of the connection between alcohol consumption and anger and have developed resources to help.

Getting Help

Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious group support programs, has long recognized the link between alcohol and anger. Therefore, most AA support groups encourage members to explore anger as part of their recovery. At least one academic study indicates that AA members who attend sessions regularly and commit to the 12-step framework see a reduction in anger while getting sober.

Many addiction treatment programs also provide Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, which helps individuals process negative habits and behaviors and develop more positive, healthier alternatives. When led by a skilled therapist with a deep understanding of an individual’s background and experiences, CBT may be effective in helping to develop calming habits and other anger-reduction techniques.

If anger is an issue for you or a loved one when you drink, contact an addiction treatment professional near you and inform them of your needs. A reputable treatment program will be able to assess whether their program is a good fit for your recovery goals or whether they should refer you to a program more specialized around your needs.

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