Mental Effects of Alcohol – Alcoholism is a potentially life-threatening disease that can wreak havoc on a person’s life, mind, and body. While all effects of alcoholism can be devastating, one of the most tragic things to watch is how alcoholism impacts a person’s mental functioning.
The Mental Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol Alters Brain Chemistry
Our brains depend on a stable balance of chemicals and processes to function optimally. Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, which means it can interfere with that balance and affect a person’s thoughts, feelings and actions. This effect is primarily due to alcohol’s effect on neurotransmitters, chemicals such as dopamine that transmit signals from one neuron in the brain to another.
The relaxed or euphoric feeling that people may encounter if they have an alcoholic drink is caused by the aforementioned chemical changes that alcohol induces. For some, one or two drinks can help them feel more social, confident, and less anxious. This relaxing effect occurs because the alcohol is starting to depress the parts of the brain responsible for inhibition.
But as a person drinks more, more of the brain starts to be impacted. When high amounts of alcohol have been consumed, instead of pleasurable effects increasing, negative emotional responses may occur, causing one to become angry, aggressive, anxious, or depressed.
Alcoholism and Mental Health Disorders
Sometimes people drink as an attempt at self-medication for a mental health condition. Other times, drinking appears to instigate or exacerbate such disorders. In either case, alcoholism and mental illness fuel one another, perpetuating a vicious cycle of drinking to feel better, feeling worse, and then opting to drink again while hoping for a different result.
For those without serious mental health issues, a little bit of alcohol may serve as a stress reliever because it induces an increase in the feel-good chemical dopamine, and also reduces other brain activity that could make one anxious or agitated. However, alcohol use can also increase anxiety and stress and make these and other problems more difficult to deal with. This is, of course, because regular, excessive drinking interferes with the balance of brain neurotransmitters that are needed for good mental health.
When a person consumes a significant amount of alcohol, their perception of any given situation may narrow. Moreover, if a person is prone to anxiety and notices something that could be construed as threatening, he or she may focus on that and miss other information in the environment that could contradict or temper that perception. For example, someone might see their partner talking to someone and assume that he or she is flirting, but in reality, it’s just a friendly conversation that could be properly analyzed if only the intoxicated person was in the right state mind.
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If a person drinks excessively on a regular basis, he or she is likely to experience some symptoms of depression. Regular drinking reduces levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps to regulate mood.
People who experience clinical depression are more likely to be heavy or problem drinkers that others without mental health problems. For some, the depression came first, and they’ve resorted to alcohol use for the relief of negative thoughts and feelings. For others, however, drinking came first, and so it may be the primary cause of their depression.
Drinking heavily can also affect one’s relationships with significant others, family, and friends. It also can impact work or school performance, and these problems can also contribute to depression. Severe depression that is coupled with alcohol’s ability to lower inhibitions can result in self-harming or suicidal behaviors.
Alcohol’s Effect on Memory
People may joke about heavy drinking that leads to blacking out and an inability to remember the night before. The truth, however, is that alcohol abuse at this level is anything but funny and is actually extremely dangerous.
While one or two incidents of blacking out don’t necessarily inflict irreversible damage to memory, regular and excessive drinking to the point of blacking out can eventually lead to permanent memory impairment. Memory problems are associated with difficulty learning and retaining new information and can also have an adverse impact on concentration.
Increased Risk of Dementia
Dementia is most often associated with the elderly, but alcoholism can contribute to the development of at a younger age and increase the risk of dementia even in those who would not have otherwise developed it. This increased risk is based on the fact that alcoholism accelerates the normal shrinkage process of the brain that occurs as we all age. Among other problems, dementia is hallmarked by a declining ability to plan and make sound judgments and decisions.
Treatment for Alcoholism
Most often, some of the mental effects caused by alcoholism can be reversed if a person discontinues alcohol use. Unfortunately, this can be incredibly challenging, and professional help will likely be necessary for a successful recovery that has the potential to stop and reverse elements of mental deterioration.
Recovery in Tune offers a wide range of evidence-based services that include psychotherapy, counseling, group support, and aftercare planning. We employ caring addiction professionals who deliver these services to clients with patience, compassion, and expertise.
If you or someone you love is suffering from the effects of alcoholism, contact us today. Discover how we help people free themselves from addiction and cultivate healthy, fulfilling lives for themselves!