When we drink alcohol, it affects our brains, bodies, and behavior. For some people, even minimal amounts of alcoholic beverages begin to affect their ability to function normally. A person who has been drinking alcohol will usually seem less coordinated, perhaps have slurred speech, and have lower inhibitions.
Along with general personality changes, some people might experience especially adverse changes in their behavior. For example, when a person who has been drinking even small amounts, a person will sometimes become angry or aggressive.
Is someone an alcoholic simply because their personality changes when they drink?
An alcohol use disorder is a diagnosable condition with a set of criteria used in the evaluation, as with other mental disorders. Personality changes don’t mean someone is an alcoholic or has an alcohol addiction. It can mean that they’re problem drinkers or experience adverse outcomes when they drink. Being a problem drinker is a risk factor for developing a more significant alcohol use disorder, but it isn’t an addiction necessarily.
Below we break down some of the ways a person who has been drinking alcohol will usually behave and how drinking can impact our personality. You can also learn about addiction recovery here.
How Alcohol Changes Your Personality
You may have various motives for drinking alcohol. You may drink primarily when you’re socializing to serve as a way to be more outgoing, so it’s a situational factor. Some people drink when they’re happy, to celebrate. Others drink alcohol to relax at the end of the day, and some do so when they’re feeling upset as a coping mechanism.
When someone drinks and especially engages in heavy drinking, they may experience changes to their personality.
You may have a group of friends you usually have alcoholic drinks with. There may be the sad drunk or the happy drunk within that group. That person’s personality changes are probably similar every time they drink, no matter the environmental factors or outside circumstances.
Our expression of personality can shift when we’re drinking or drunk. Personality isn’t just how we outwardly behave or act in social interactions under typical circumstances. Our personalities are complex and include how we feel and how we’re experiencing any given situation.
A reason for the changes is the loss of control you experience. Alcohol disinhibits the part of your brain that gives you self-control. That’s why you might become more extroverted when you drink, or you could become more angry and aggressive. You’re removing that element of control that you use in your daily life with the addition of alcohol.
The traits that come out when you drink are already there—they may be underlying. They are just heightened with the addition of alcohol, and especially heavy drinking.
If you’re someone who has underlying and unresolved anger, you’re more likely to expose that when you drink. If you’re generally happy, then you might experience a more over-the-top version of those feelings as you drink.
Most researchers believe alcohol begins to affect a person’s abilities to conceal elements of their personality perhaps. It doesn’t make you a different person to drink, however.
Why Does Alcohol Lower Your Inhibitions?
As we’ve touched on, a person who has been drinking will usually do things they wouldn’t otherwise. Chemical reactions happen in your brain when you drink. These reactions also play a role in coordination, as the alcohol begins to affect a person’s abilities.
When you drink, a few things happen.
- GABA levels increase.
- GABA is a brain chemical messenger or neurotransmitter. When the neurotransmitter goes up, you feel relaxed, and your stress and anxiety go down.
- There’s an increase in dopamine in the brain. Dopamine sends chemical messengers that create feelings of pleasure, thus the buzz you get from drinking.
- Norepinephrine goes up, which is a stimulating neurotransmitter. This is the neurotransmitter primarily responsible for excitement, as well as lower inhibitions and increased impulsivity. When your norepinephrine is high, it can make it hard for you to weigh the consequences of your decisions thoroughly.
- There are also effects on the brain’s prefrontal cortex, responsible for helping you think rationally and clearly. When you drink, it impairs the abilities of your prefrontal cortex. You’re then more likely to act without thinking.
- Alcohol reduces the behavioral inhibition centers in your brain.
- You have a slowdown in the processing of information in the brain, so it’s more difficult for you to think through the consequences fully.
- The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for managing your willpower and feelings of aggression.
All these effects mean that if you’re already feeling angry or aggressive, that shield of inhibition goes away. You’re more likely to act on those feelings that were already there bubbling under the surface.
Many of the brain areas affected by alcohol also play a role in mental health and mental health issues. For example, if someone has co-occurring disorders like bipolar disorder, the influence of alcohol can also make the symptoms worse.
Alcohol and Aggression
There are certain people that we see and think “they’re an angry drunk.” The reasons are due to the factors above. However, even if you’re not an inherently angry person, you may still get more violent or aggressive than you would otherwise.
For example, if someone were to provoke you after you’d been drinking, you could be likely to take the bait and engage with them. In your normal daily life, without the addition of alcohol, you’d probably just ignore or walk away from the situation.
It’s important to note links between drinking habits and intimate partner violence. In fact, in one study, 30% of couples reporting intimate partner violence said alcohol was a factor.
Regardless of whether you believe it’s the alcohol affecting someone’s behavior, if you experience violence or abuse of any type when someone is drinking, you should leave the situation and go to a safe space. It’s never an excuse. Alcohol doesn’t create these components of someone’s personality — again, it just enhances or brings them to the surface.
Are You An Alcoholic When Your Personality Changes?
As mentioned above, when your personality changes or, more accurately, when certain characteristics come out when you’re drinking, that doesn’t inherently point to alcoholism or alcohol dependence. There are complex factors and diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder. It’s a chronic illness and a mental health disorder.
One of the primary criteria for diagnosing an alcohol use disorder or any substance use disorder is continuing to drink despite negative, known consequences. So, if you know that you become aggressive or angry when you drink, and it leads to fights, altercations, legal problems, or other issues, yet you keep drinking, that could be a red flag.
If you try to cut down on your drinking and you aren’t able to, and you keep finding yourself in situations where your personality changes in an unpleasant way, it could be an indicator of an alcohol use disorder.
One of the most dangerous behaviors of someone who has been consuming alcohol is drunk driving. In the United States, you are considered legally drunk when your blood alcohol content (bac) is .08. If your alcohol levels are beyond this point you are considered to be a drunk driver and prohibited to operate a vehicle. When you drink and drive your reaction time is lowered, a significant amount of fatal crashes reported come from impaired drivers.
We encourage you to call 408-547-4089 and reach out to the Silicon Valley Recovery addiction treatment team if you’re worried about your behavior or someone else’s. We can help you connect with resources to help to guide you in how to deal with a person who has been drinking.