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How alcohol affects mood and changes people

With first use, alcohol affects the structure and function of the brain by altering both the neurons (brain cells) and the neurotransmitters (chemicals that transmit impulses among neurons and other cells in the body). The initial dopamine release from alcohol usually results in an initial euphoric feeling, relaxation and deceased social anxiety. This dopamine surge disrupts the normal dopamine activity in the brain, prompting the drinker to drink more.

Chronic alcohol use results in hypersensitivity to certain neurotransmitters (such as glutamate) and desensitization of certain receptors (such as GABA). These changes occur in the part of the brain that regulates stress response, pain perception and emotional states. As a result, such changes can lead to chemical dependency.

How alcohol changes behavior

Even before chemical dependency develops, alcohol seems to change people. Recently, scientists have begun to explore these changes in an effort to understand what causes them, how to predict them and how to reduce the harm that occurs as a result.

One study showed that people who generally ignore future consequences of present behavior and got drunk were meaner and more aggressive than those who were future-oriented thinkers when sober. Those who become mean when drunk are of particular interest because they tend to have the most alcohol-related problems.

A more recent study set about analyzing the nature and magnitude of change in personality characteristics that people undergo during intoxication. Using standardized personality assessment and statistical methods (finite mixed model clustering), 374 undergraduates were surveyed about their “drinking buddies’” behavior. Analysis revealed four specific clusters of intoxicated “personalities,” each nicknamed according to its characteristics. The following are brief summaries of each type:

  1. Hemmingway: Minimal intoxication despite heavy drinking, becomes less conscientiousness when drunk
  2. Mary Poppins: Agreeable when sober, becomes much more extroverted when drunk but stays rather agreeable and conscientious
  3. Mr. Hyde: Becomes much less conscientious and very disagreeable when drunk
  4. The Nutty Professor: Very introverted when sober and very extroverted when drunk but much less conscientious

Interestingly, the magnitude of the change from sober to drunk was not associated with the experience of negative consequences but the type was. Not surprisingly, participants who became mean when they were drunk (the Mr. Hydes) got into the most trouble and experienced the most negative consequences.

Spiritual explanations

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) described alcoholism as a spiritual malady, as well as a mental and physical illness. The 12 steps of AA essentially describe a manner of living that results in a “spiritual awakening,” a concept that has been described as a cure by many who have recovered, although others view the spiritual aspect as a deterrent to trying the program. But active AA members generally consider both the cause and cure for alcoholism to be spiritual in nature.

Still, there are those who take the spiritual aspect of alcohol even further and attribute the changes in mood or personality to possession by negative spirits or disembodied entities. This school of thought generally views alcohol as a substance that makes the soul vulnerable to demons. For example, this view explains alcoholic blackouts as alternate spirits controlling the behavior of an unconscious person. While this explanation is difficult to prove, some people really do not seem at all like themselves when they drink.

When to get help

The first step in ridding oneself of real or proverbial “inner demons” is to become and stay sober. When repeated attempts to do so fail, inpatient detoxification does provide a smart solution. Residential treatment can then help solve some of the underlying issues that served as barriers to sobriety for so long. In sobriety, all other problems become manageable and life can take on a whole new meaning.

Sovereign Health of Texas provides a residential treatment center in El Paso for those struggling with substance use and co-occurring disorders. Sovereign Health uses experiential therapy to teach clients the life skills required to cope with stress in healthy ways.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. Sovereign Health is a behavioral health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.

 

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