Some would argue that of all the potentially dangerous and harmful substances out there, alcohol is one of, if not the most accessible. Anyone over the age of 21 can legally purchase alcohol, no questions asked. Not only that, but it’s practically everywhere. Gas stations, grocery stores, convenience stores, and restaurants. It’s almost nearly impossible to avoid.
For many, alcohol is consumed in social settings as a way to relax or even celebrate. For others though, alcohol has a much darker side, leading to things like aggression and anger. If you are someone who experiences anger or aggression when drinking, it’s important to understand why alcohol and anger or alcohol and aggression go hand in hand.
If you or a loved one experiences aggression or anger when drinking, it could be a sign of a larger issue. In this blog, we will discuss not only the connection between alcohol and anger but also how you can get the help you need if you are struggling.
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Anger vs Aggression
Before we take a deeper dive into the relationship between alcohol, anger, and aggression, it’s important to understand the difference between anger and aggression. While the two share many similarities, they are two very different emotions.
Anger is a natural and often healthy emotion experienced by individuals. It is a response to a perceived threat, injustice, or frustration. Anger itself is not inherently negative. In fact, at its core, it can motivate people to address problems, set boundaries, and advocate for themselves.
On the other hand, aggression is the behavioral manifestation of anger. It involves actions that are meant to harm, threaten, or injure someone physically or emotionally. While anger is a feeling, aggression is a behavior. Aggression can be verbal (shouting, insults) or physical (hitting, pushing). Not all angry individuals resort to aggression, but alcohol can lower inhibitions and make it more likely for someone to act on their anger.
How Alcohol Impacts Behavior
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which means it slows down brain functioning and impairs cognitive and motor skills. Its effects on behavior are complex and can vary from person to person. At our Illinois alcohol rehab center, we can help individuals who are questioning their alcohol consumption to those who are deeply rooted by its addiction.
That being said, alcohol can negatively impact a person’s behavior in the following ways:
- It can impair your judgment – Alcohol can lead to impaired judgment and decision-making. When under the influence, people are more likely to misinterpret social cues, overreact to situations, and engage in risky behaviors.
- It can reduce your inhibition – Alcohol has a disinhibiting effect. It reduces inhibitions, making individuals less cautious about their actions and more prone to say or do things they might later regret. This can lead to aggressive outbursts when anger is triggered.
- It can impair your motor skills – Alcohol impairs motor skills and coordination, making physical aggression more likely if an individual feels provoked or threatened.
- It can impact your communication – Alcohol can lead to slurred speech, incoherence, and an inability to effectively communicate. This can cause misunderstandings, leading to frustration and, potentially, aggression.
Why Alcohol Impacts Behavior
Now that we touched on how exactly alcohol can impact a person’s behavior, it’s important to understand why exactly that all happens, including the neurological and psychological mechanisms at play.
For starters, like so many other substances of abuse, drinking alcohol can alter a person’s brain chemistry. Alcohol affects the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These changes in the brain’s chemistry can lead to mood swings and impulsivity, both of which can cause aggression and anger.
Additionally, alcohol can also affect the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that’s responsible for things such as decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation. This part of the brain is particularly sensitive to alcohol’s effects which can also make it difficult for those drinking alcohol to control their responses and reactions to certain emotions.
Beyond just the chemical reaction that alcohol has on the brain, there is also the psychological impact as well. Some people drink alcohol as a way to self-medicate, whether it be for a physical ailment or a mental one. Alcohol initially has a mood-enhancing effect, making individuals feel more relaxed and less inhibited. However, over time, prolonged alcohol use can actually make these ailments worse, leading to feelings of frustration, anger, hostility, and, ultimately, aggression.
Finally, there are the sociocultural impacts that alcohol ultimately has. Social settings and cultural norms can influence alcohol-related aggression. While under the influence of alcohol, some people feel that aggression is an acceptable way to either assert dominance or defend themselves.
How Losing a Sense of Perception Can Lead to Aggressiveness
On that final note, in particular, one of the more profound ways in which alcohol can contribute to aggression is by altering an individual’s perception of reality.
This loss of perception can occur due to several factors:
- Impaired Self-Awareness: Alcohol can make individuals less aware of their own behavior, impairing their ability to recognize that their actions are aggressive or harmful. This lack of self-awareness can lead to escalating aggression.
- Misinterpretation of Cues: Alcohol impairs the ability to accurately interpret social cues. Someone under the influence may perceive harmless actions or comments as threats, leading to an aggressive response.
- Memory Impairment: Alcohol often results in memory impairment, making individuals forget what they said or did while intoxicated. This can lead to further misunderstandings and conflict, as they may not remember the context of an argument.
- Tunnel Vision: Alcohol can lead to a state of “tunnel vision,” where individuals become fixated on a perceived threat or provocation, making it difficult for them to see the bigger picture or consider alternative, non-aggressive responses.
Risk Factors of Alcohol-Related Anger/Aggression
While we touched on the how and the why when it comes to anger, aggression, and alcohol, it’s also important to understand the risk factors involved as well.
Several risk factors increase the likelihood of alcohol-related anger and aggression, including:
- Individual Differences – Some people may be more prone to aggressive behavior when intoxicated due to their personality traits, such as impulsivity or a history of aggressive behavior.
- High Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) – The higher the BAC, the more likely someone is to exhibit aggressive behavior. Individuals who consume large quantities of alcohol are at a greater risk.
- Previous Aggressive Behavior – A history of aggressive behavior, whether alcohol-related or not, is a strong predictor of future aggressive acts while under the influence.
- Stress and Provocation – High-stress situations or provocative environments, such as crowded bars or contentious social gatherings, can increase the likelihood of alcohol-related aggression.
- Alcohol Expectancies – People who believe that alcohol will enhance their aggression or provide an excuse for aggressive behavior are more likely to become aggressive when they drink.
Potential Effects of Alcohol-Related Aggression
As you can imagine, alcohol-related aggression can have far-reaching and severe unintended consequences. Some of these consequences may only affect the person drinking, while others can affect numerous others.
Some effects of alcohol-related aggression include:
- Violence – Aggressive behavior fueled by alcohol can lead to violence, resulting in physical harm, injuries, or even fatalities. Common examples include domestic violence, bar fights, and altercations at social events.
- Criminal Consequences – Engaging in aggressive behavior while under the influence of alcohol can lead to legal consequences, including arrests, charges, and potential incarceration.
- Damaged Relationships – Alcohol-fueled aggression can damage personal and professional relationships. It may lead to isolation, strained friendships, or the dissolution of marriages and partnerships.
- Psychological Impact – Both the perpetrator and the victim of alcohol-related aggression can suffer from long-lasting psychological effects, including trauma, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Health Risks – Alcohol-related aggression can result in injuries that require medical attention. Chronic alcohol use also contributes to various health issues, such as liver damage, cardiovascular problems, and addiction.
- Social Stigma – People who exhibit aggressive behavior when intoxicated may face social stigma, making it harder for them to maintain social connections or secure employment.
Get Help With Alcohol and Anger at Northern Illinois Recovery
Understanding the connection between alcohol and aggression is essential for mitigating its negative consequences. While anger is a natural and healthy emotion, alcohol can distort perceptions and impair judgment, leading to aggressive behavior that can have severe repercussions for both individuals and society. Recognizing the risk factors and potential effects of alcohol-related aggression is a crucial step toward addressing this issue.
At Northern Illinois Recovery, we not only understand the importance of early detection when it comes to alcohol and anger, but we also know that it can be the sign of a larger issue, such as alcohol abuse or addiction. That’s why we offer a number of treatment options, including:
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol use and could benefit from alcohol addiction treatment, contact us today.
Licensed Physician and Surgeon
Dr. Beth Dunlap, a board-certified addiction medicine and family medicine physician, and is the medical director at Northern Illinois Recovery Center. She is responsible for overseeing all the integrated medical services at both campuses. Beth completed medical school, residency, and fellowship at Northwestern University, where she continues to serve on the faculty as a member of the Department of Family and Community Medicine. She has extensive experience in addiction medicine at all levels of care, and her clinical interests include integrated primary care and addiction medicine, harm reduction, and medication-assisted treatment.