There’s an old image that often comes to mind when we think of alcoholics—it’s usually either giddy and silly, maybe even dim-witted, or mean and angry. As the population of alcoholics have been generalized in this way in movies, TV shows, and books for as long as stories have existed, we are conditioned to expect them to be like one of these caricatures. The truth is that there is a lot of pain underneath the surface of any person with a substance use disorder, and alcoholics are no different. Alcoholism is simply no laughing matter.
Alcohol is one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs out there. When an individual drinks too much, their behavior changes significantly. Abuse of alcohol can change an individual who is prone to addictive behaviors. They like how it makes them feel, but they do not see how it changes them. An individual who becomes addicted to alcohol is said to suffer from alcohol use disorder, or AUD.
Effects of Alcohol Use Disorder
AUD causes widespread problems for both the individual who suffers from it and everyone who cares about them. Drinking too much can cause damages that range from the physical, to the psychological, to the emotional for everyone involved. Those who struggle with AUD can suffer from personal anger, deep depression, and severe anxiety, and they can leave deep emotional scars in the people who care about them from the verbal abuse and emotional volatility that frequently accompanies AUD.
The physical effects of alcohol abuse on the body are well-documented. Cirrhosis of the liver is commonly found in those who abuse alcohol as are diabetes, digestive issues, immune problems, and obesity. There have been a number of studies that focus on the relationship between alcohol and the chemical components of the brain.
How Alcohol Affects the Brain
It is important that we look at the effects that chronic alcohol usage has on the brain at both a physical and chemical level to understand why individuals who struggle with AUD are frequently angry, depressed and overly emotional. Once alcohol has entered the bloodstream, the brain responds by increasing its natural production of a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is naturally released into our bodies whenever we participate in any activity that makes us happy. Playing a game, eating, exercising, or watching a good movie are some examples of dopamine-releasing actions. When alcohol enters our system, our dopamine production is increased at a rate that cannot be achieved naturally.
The result of an increase in dopamine production is our desire to feel as good as we do when our levels are increased, leading us to want to repeat the behaviors that increased the production. At first, it does not take much alcohol or too much of a drug’s increased dosage to repeat the feeling. However, the pursuit of that same euphoria will lead to developing a tolerance. Once tolerance is achieved, more and more of the drug or alcohol must be used to attain that same happiness that the substance initially brought. This is how addictions develop, and over time, the pursuit of increased dopamine can lead to making unhealthy decisions.
Increased dopamine levels are not the only consequence that the brain suffers when exposed to chronic drug or alcohol use. Over time, alcohol can affect brain functions that we take for granted, including decision making, memory, and speaking. It is sometimes referred to as ‘wet brain.’
- Decision Making: Those with chronic alcohol use disorder are not known for making the best decisions when they are under the influence. Instead, their decisions can become more impulsive, leading that individual to behave in a manner that they later regret, like verbally or physically assaulting the ones they love with no recollection of doing so the next day. These behaviors are caused by alcohol’s direct effect on the cerebral cortex, which controls our ability to make responsible decisions, think rationally, and absorb new information.
- Memory: Some individuals will, over time, begin to suffer long blocks of time where they have no recollection of their own words or behavior; these periods are known as blackouts. Blackouts can be especially dangerous because they may cover up risky activities or enable the user to deny their behavior even though their actions could be considered abusive or criminal. It is common for a chronic alcohol user to laugh off these things even though they could have left serious damage in their wake. When memory issues are related to alcohol, they are related to hippocampus imbalances. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that is responsible for regulating learning and memory.
- Speaking: People under the influence of alcohol frequently have difficulties speaking. Their words are often slurred, or they mix up their sentences. Alcohol is a depressant that slows down brain functions and body movements and can make it difficult to move, speak, think, and react as quickly as when compared to being sober. They can also make statements to others that could be perceived as verbal abuse. Additionally, it’s often difficult for someone who is under the influence of alcohol to understand what those around them are saying. They don’t grasp the meaning of sentences or confuse the meaning of words.
Movement and Balance
People who have consumed too much alcohol can have difficulty with movement, balance, or vision. They also have issues with their fine motor skills. Alcohol makes it difficult for people to drive safely or attempt any other high-risk activities that require physical coordination. The cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls balance, coordination, and other movement-related activities. When affected by alcohol, a person may have issues with their balance and could suffer from frequent falls. They may even be unable to stand or sit up.
Studies on alcohol and balance show that balance issues are only the beginning. Alcohol abuse can also lead to an actual shrinkage of brain tissue in addition to some forms of memory loss and dementia.
The Link Between Alcohol and Anger
In a 2015 study on the connection between alcohol and violent behavior, it was determined that alcohol impacts the parts of the brain that help us keep our emotions in check. These same affected areas of the brain are also responsible for decision-making. Alcohol impacts these areas by removing inhibitions and making the person struggling with alcohol use disorder more likely to participate in dangerous behaviors.
The 2015 study concluded that people who tend toward alcohol abuse are more likely to be angry than those who are sober. This is exacerbated by the fact that the higher the level of anger, the more alcohol they consume. For those individuals who already have aggressive tendencies, consumption of alcohol makes it more likely that they will lash out. Finally, those who were considered to score higher on an anger scale were more likely to become violent when under the influence of alcohol.
German studies on alcohol and aggression also determined that “Aggression is promoted both by the cognitive deficits arising in connection with acute or chronic alcohol use and by prior experience of violence in particular situations where alcohol was drunk.” Ultimately it is the effects of alcohol on those parts of the brain that can control aggressive tendencies under normal circumstances that make those with alcohol use disorders more prone to anger and aggression.
With these studies comes a greater understanding of the dangers of alcohol. Today’s professionals involved in the treatment of drug and alcohol use disorders are better prepared to treat these issues in a rehab setting. The results of these studies prove the need for medical intervention to be a significant part of the treatment process.
Signs That You Need Help
If you find yourself getting in trouble with the law over your aggressive tendencies or find that there is often family discord because of your drinking and temper, you may want to reach out to a treatment professional. Other signs that it is time for help include increasing numbers of blackout events where you do not recall your actions while you were drinking. When alcohol begins to take priority over other life events, and when its effects start to take a toll on your brain, it is time to stop drinking to avoid future incidents of alcohol-fueled anger or mental deficiencies such as dementia.
Most people with alcohol use disorder do not get to this decision by themselves. Either because of recurring episodes involving violence, anger, or arrests for alcohol-related crimes, loved ones may want to consider an intervention to get through to the individual who is chronically using alcohol. Intervention specialists can help plan an event to help convince your loved one that it is time for treatment.
What to Expect From Treatment
When you first enter a treatment program, you will need to be medically evaluated to determine the damages to the body from the substances used. No two patients are the same, but the first step in treatment is medically supervised detoxification from alcohol and any other substances used. Once the patient graduates from detox, they go through behavior modification therapy to learn how to live successfully without drugs or alcohol. The most successful treatment programs follow the proven 12-step program of Alcohol Anonymous as a basis for coming to terms with alcohol use disorder. Behavior modification involving group therapy led by licensed professionals provides both education and peer support for learning new behaviors to replace your addictive ones. Meditation, exercise, and nutrition are incorporated into these programs to teach those in recovery how to live a healthier lifestyle.
Treatment does not end when one leaves a residential program. It is a continuous journey that relies on a regular schedule of interactions with others in recovery through meetings and relationships with sponsors and new peers. For many, sober living facilities and homes provide the appropriate environment that helps them avoid situations where they might be tempted to go back to their addictive behaviors.
It needs to be noted that it is not unusual for there to be times where there is a relapse into the old addictive behavior. A large percentage of those in recovery have been through a cycle of recovery and relapse. Fortunately, with an organized basis of recovery, most of these individuals will pursue recovery again with a greater chance at successfully remaining sober.
Granite Recovery Centers
At Granite Recovery Centers, we are not strangers to recovery. Lessons that we have learned on our own paths to sobriety have given us the unique insights needed to develop a successful treatment process. Granite’s focus is on the long-term treatment of substance use disorders.
Granite Recovery Center’s locations are situated in tranquil settings that offer a full range of treatment services. Beginning with medical detox and followed by residential treatment, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient programs, Granite uses a proven 12-step-centered approach to recovery. We round out our full spectrum of services with sober living homes and aftercare services to surround those who are still new to the recovery process with communities of peers and mentors who can best help them maintain their sobriety.
Granite Recovery Centers are staffed with highly trained recovery, medical, psychiatric, and support professionals. If you are looking for clinical excellence and evidence-based practices in a recovery program, Granite provides everything you need for your successful treatment process.