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Emotional Drinking: What Happens When You Drink To Feel Better

Hard times are a fact of life. 

From heartbreak and loss to work stress and family disagreements, we all have to deal with stuff that challenges us to our core. And in response, we each have unique methods of weathering these emotional storms.

Unfortunately, for many people, difficult emotions are a gateway to emotional drinking, which is defined as consuming alcohol as a means to manage or escape emotional distress or discomfort. 

If you do this, you’re certainly not alone. 

In fact, during the coronavirus pandemic, nearly 1 in 4 American adults reported drinking more alcohol than usual to cope with their stress.

But drinking to the edge off is normal, right? No big deal?

Eh, not so fast. Here’s a truth I learned the hard way: emotional drinking is a slippery slope that, in the end, only makes things worse. 

At first, alcohol may feel like a loyal friend, always there to provide a comforting, albeit temporary, reprieve from your emotions. There’s a camaraderie and ritual to grabbing a drink at the end of a hard day.

But that initial relief doesn’t last long. 

Soon, alcohol starts piling more problems, emotional pain, and discomfort onto your already weary mind. If left unchecked, the tool you used to try to control your emotions starts to control you instead. 

If this sounds familiar, take heart. Understanding emotional drinking and its seductive illusions is the first step to breaking free from its grip.

A woman is distressed and emotionally drinking
emotional drinking

Why Do People Use Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism? 

In the face of emotional distress, many people reach for a drink. It’s a culturally ingrained response—think of the countless movie scenes where characters knock back a shot or two after a tough day. 

But why is this so common? 

It all comes down to how alcohol affects your brain

Drinking alcohol causes a surge of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a critical role in the reward system in your brain (more on this in a moment). Increased dopamine leads to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, which is why you might feel all warm, fuzzy, and happy after the first couple of drinks. 

Alcohol can also suppress the production of glutamate, a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become more electrically “excited.” By decreasing glutamate activity, alcohol has a sedative effect that can help reduce anxiety and stress, further enhancing its initial pleasurable effects.

While these effects might seem like a useful coping mechanism on the surface, emotional drinking can ultimately set you up for more emotional pain, problems, and even alcohol dependence. 

Dopamine Deceit: A Vicious Cycle 

You see, when dopamine is released in response to a particular behavior—like eating yummy foods, having sex, or drinking alcohol—it serves as a powerful reinforcement, essentially telling your brain, “This feels good, let’s do it again.” 

This reinforcement mechanism encourages your brain to repeat the activity that led to the dopamine release—in this case, consuming alcohol. 

Over time, if this cycle continues, your brain starts to associate drinking alcohol with these positive feelings.

This association can grow stronger with repetition, and you might find yourself reaching for a drink whenever you feel anxious, sad, or bored, as your brain seeks to counter these uncomfortable emotions with a temporary dopamine surge. 

Another kicker? With continued alcohol use, the brain eventually adapts to the dopamine overload and starts to produce less of the chemical. As a result, a person has to consume more and more alcohol in an unconscious attempt to get that “dopamine high” back.  

Eventually, you may find yourself having drink large amounts of alcohol just to feel a baseline normal, never mind drunk or buzzed. 

And this is the point where drinking becomes very high risk. 

Alcohol and Mental Health: A Counterproductive Cycle 

Alcohol might offer a temporary escape from emotional distress, but it’s essential to understand that it’s a short-term fix with long-term repercussions. Specifically, regular or heavy drinking can actually exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions and create a cycle of worsening emotional pain. 

Here’s how this counterproductive cycle works. 

1. Alcohol Can Create or Exacerbate Mental Health Conditions

Alcohol alters the balance of chemicals in your brain, including neurotransmitters that regulate your mood and mental health. These alterations can cause those dreaded feelings of “hangxiety” or low mood after a night of drinking.

Over time, regular drinking can alter your brain chemistry, contributing to the development of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. In fact, those who are dependent on alcohol have a 3.6 and 2.6 times higher risk of developing a mood or anxiety disorder, respectively. 

Alcohol use can also compound the symptoms of pre-existing mental health conditions. 

2. Alcohol Intensifies Emotional Pain In The Long-Term

Here’s the thing – alcohol doesn’t help you process or resolve the emotions you’re trying to escape. Instead, it simply pushes them aside for a short while. 

If you drink too much, it can even change your personality in ways that make you more emotionally volatile and reactive – things that will inevitably only contribute to your problems.

When the effects of alcohol wear off, those unresolved feelings are still there, often intensified by the additional stress and guilt that can come with hangovers or regretted actions taken while under the influence (been there, done that!). 

Over time, the brain can become reliant on alcohol to manage these emotions, diminishing your ability to cope with stress and emotional discomfort without it. 

This dependence can lead to a cycle of increased drinking, worsening emotional pain, and heightened need for alcohol—setting you up for more emotional distress in the long run.

3. Excessive Drinking Impacts Your Overall Quality of Life 

Alcohol use, particularly heavy or chronic use, can lead to a slew of negative life consequences, including relationship issues, worsening mental health, job loss, financial troubles, and health problems. 

These all add more emotional stress to an already burdensome load, making it even harder to break free from emotional drinking.

This is the insidious part, right? 

You drink to cope with problems which, in turn, make you less equipped to handle them. So you drink more to numb out further, which leads to bad decisions, regrettable behavior, and mistakes. 

In short, while alcohol may temporarily provide a shield from emotional pain, it ultimately enhances it, leading to a vicious cycle that gets harder to escape. 

A woman sits on the floor with a bottle of wine, emotional
Understanding emotional drinking

What Does It Mean to Be an Emotional Drinker? 

Emotional drinking is not to be confused with being an “emotional drinker.”

When we talk about emotional drinking, we’re referring to the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism—a way to numb or escape negative feelings and emotional distress. This term reflects more on why a person is drinking.

On the other hand, when someone identifies as an “emotional drinker,” it means that drinking tends to heighten their emotions, often leading to significant mood or personality changes. They might become more expressive or sensitive. Or, they may exhibit more extreme emotional reactions, such as crying or anger, even from relatively minor triggers. 

It’s important to note that someone can simultaneously engage in emotional drinking and be an emotional drinker. 

For example, someone may turn to alcohol to cope with stress or anxiety (emotional drinking) and find that once they start drinking, their emotions become more intense or difficult to manage (being an “emotional drinker”). 

In both cases, individuals are responding to alcohol’s impact on their brains, which can affect their behavior, emotions, and overall mental health.

When Does Emotional Drinking Turn Unhealthy? 

While I’d argue that emotional drinking is never healthy, using alcohol as a coping mechanism becomes distinctly unhealthy when it becomes one of your go-to ways (or only way) to handle stress and negative emotions. 

When you start to rely on alcohol to get through challenging times, you risk developing an alcohol use disorder.

Some warning signs include: 

  • Drinking more or for longer than you intend to 
  • Wanting to cut down or stop drinking but not being able to 
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or being hungover 
  • Feeling a strong urge or craving to drink, especially in response to difficult emotions 

Is There a Difference Between Emotional Drinking and Alcoholism? 

Emotional drinking doesn’t necessarily equate to alcoholism, but it’s a risky behavior that, over time, can lead to increased tolerance and dependency on alcohol.

Alcoholism, or Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), is a medical diagnosis characterized by an individual’s inability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. 

It involves both physical and psychological dependence on alcohol, and it’s typically marked by cravings, withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, and a need to drink more to achieve the same effects. 

The key difference between emotional drinking and alcoholism is a person’s level of control over alcohol and the impact on one’s life. An emotional drinker might periodically use alcohol to cope with negative emotions, but may not necessarily drink regularly or heavily outside of these instances. 

However, if this behavior escalates and a person finds they cannot control their alcohol use, and it starts to negatively affect various aspects of their life, they may be dealing with alcoholism

I’ve included a quiz at the end of this article to help you see you risk level for alcohol dependence.

Turning the Tide on Emotional Drinking

Whether you’re at the stage where you’re recognizing an unhealthy pattern of emotional drinking or you’ve crossed over into an alcohol use disorder, know that help is available. It’s entirely possible to break free from alcohol’s deceitful web. 

Recognizing a problem is the first step toward addressing it, and numerous resources exist for individuals looking to change their relationship with alcohol

For more information on how to take back control of your body, mind, and life, jump over to my article How to Quit Drinking: 15 Steps from Someone Who Did It. And if you want to connect with others going through similar things, request to join the Soberish private Facebook group. We’d love for you to join our sobriety support network!


The following quiz is called the AUDIT which stands for Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test. Medical professionals use a version of this test to assess their patient’s risk for alcohol dependence.

But I’m not your doctor, so this quiz is purely for informational purposes. It’s not an official diagnosis. Take the quiz, see how you do, and then book an appointment with your doctor if you think you might be at risk.

Welcome to your Alcohol Use (AUDIT) quiz

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

How many units of alcohol do you drink on a typical day when you are drinking?

A unit of alcohol is one standard drink. Examples of one standard drink include:

  • 12 oz can of beer with about 5% alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine (roughly 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of spirits like vodka, rum, or whiskey (about 40% alcohol)

How often have you had 6 or more units if female, or 8 or more if male, on a single occasion in the last year?

How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

How often during the last year have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

More Resources on Drinking

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