Some days, you sit down and have a drink at the bar and become the life of the party. Another day, drinking the same amount of alcohol at the same place, you feel depressed and isolated. The next time you visit the bar and drink the same amount you become aggressive and volatile.
Why does alcohol have such an inconsistent effect on your mood and emotions?
Many people will turn to alcohol to cope with difficult situations, only to find themselves more emotionally unstable after drinking. This phenomenon – known as emotional dysregulation – has been seen in drinkers for decades, and scientists may have found the answer.
What is Emotional Dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation refers to when your emotions fall out of line with what’s considered appropriate or acceptable.
It could be flying into a fit of rage over a friend being ten minutes late, or experiencing overwhelming sadness because your local convenience store doesn’t have your brand of ice cream in stock.
While the core emotion may be appropriate – frustration at being inconvenienced, or disappointed that you don’t get what you want – the intensity of the emotion is disproportionate. It’s all gas, no brakes, and you feel yourself flying out of control whether you want to or not.
In people with alcohol use disorders, this inability to regulate emotions can often develop into mental health issues. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA):
- Between 27% to 40% of people with an alcohol use disorder have had a co-occurring mood disorder, such as depression or bipolar disorder
- Between 30% and 60% of people seeking treatment for their alcohol use have co-occurring PTSD
- Between 20% and 40% of people with anxiety disorders have co-occurring alcohol use disorders
The vast overlap between mental illness and alcohol problems is no coincidence, and alcohol’s effects on emotional regulation may be partly to blame.
Why Emotional Regulation Is Important
The sad fact is that life doesn’t always go our way. No matter who you are, you’ll experience your share of petty frustrations, difficult emotional times, and challenges that need to be overcome. But to let your emotions take the wheel is often counterproductive to your overall health and wellbeing, keeping you living in misery rather than forging through to the other side.
A healthy dose of emotional regulation allows you to:
- Address difficult situations rationally
- Minimize your time spent suffering
- Work on making things better in the future
When your friend is late, having a bitter confrontation can damage a relationship that you’ve spent years cultivating. If you miss the big promotion at work, having a breakdown won’t help your career.
But this isn’t a call for stoicism: having an appropriate level of emotion helps you connect with others, get back on your feet after disappointment, and continue to thrive in your everyday life. It’s inappropriate or excessive emotionality that can stand in your way.
Alcohol Use and Emotional Dysregulation
Unfortunately, when alcohol enters the equation, the ability to regulate your emotions can start to suffer.
Alcohol use has been frequently associated with emotional dysregulation in scientific studies, and can often lead to aggression, impulsive decision-making, and risky behaviors that you’d never attempt with a clear mind.
Almost paradoxically, many people use alcohol as a coping mechanism for difficult emotions. After the visceral hurt of a breakup, people will try to drown their sorrows in beer, wine, and liquor.
Alcohol is used to come to the rescue when things haven’t gone your way. A million different terms exist for this style of drinking: drowning your sorrows, taking to the bottle, drinking to forget, dulling the pain.
Yet the real-life experience doesn’t always work out quite like you hope.
You drink to forget about your breakup and find yourself drunk, sobbing, and texting your ex. When you use alcohol to cope with job loss, you end up even more enraged than when you started.
And if you’re drinking to hide from an anxious moment, you somehow begin to worry all the more. At times, it seems like your whole personality changes.
This is the result of a misunderstanding about alcohol. People think of alcohol as a tool for managing emotions or forgetting about them – but it can’t really accomplish these tasks. Instead, alcohol provides a sort of near-sighted tunnel vision: an unshakeable focus on what’s happening with you right now.
Myopia is the medical term for nearsightedness – but alcohol myopia isn’t about your eyes. Alcohol myopia refers to a person’s inability to have foresight, to look at the big picture, or focus on anything other than what’s happening to them right now while they are under the influence of alcohol. As one alcohol researcher stated, alcohol makes people “slaves to the present moment”.
The theory of alcohol myopia provides a compelling scientific explanation for why people struggle to regulate their emotions while drinking. According to the theory, people experience several short-sighted effects while under the influence of alcohol:
- They can only focus on cues in their immediate environment
- They become unable to regulate excessive forms of behavior
- They have a reduced attentional capacity to focus on the past or future
In practice, this means that people can become excessively emotional about the things that are right in front of them, and unable to disconnect themselves. So when you’re going through a breakup, and turn to alcohol to cope, you often get trapped in a cycle of excessive emotions happening here and now.
Perhaps you’ve seen this happen before, either in yourself or others.
At one moment, everything seems fine – the next, you notice something that reminds you of your difficult situation, and you’re bawling your eyes out. While a sober person may be able to draw their attention away, focus on the big picture, or keep their emotions under control – this process becomes impossible for the person using alcohol to cope.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on Emotional Regulation
In the short term, alcohols effects on your brain, body, and cognitive processes reduce your ability to control your emotions. Its why aggression is so frequently associated with being intoxicated, and why people experience a greater intensity of emotion when they’re drunk.
While this sometimes means people feel happier and more sociable, it often results in the opposite effect – and the power to choose your emotional state is outside of your direct control.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on Emotional Regulation
For people who have a long history of drinking, or who may be living with an alcohol use disorder, emotional dysregulation becomes even more pronounced.
Not only are they dealing with the short-term effects of alcohol interfering with their ability to control their emotions, but with lasting brain changes caused by alcohol that can exacerbate highly emotional states.
But in addition to the direct effects of alcohol on the brain which disturb emotional regulation, many people learn to use alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Using alcohol in an attempt to solve your problems can leave you without any effective strategies outside of drinking, and often leaves you with more problems than you started with.
Without healthy coping mechanisms to mitigate intense emotions, people with alcohol use disorders can find themselves with sudden and intense mood swings in their day-to-day life that they only know to treat with alcohol.
Treatment and Intervention Strategies
Fortunately, the effects that alcohol has on emotional regulation are well known to addiction treatment providers. When you seek out professional help for an alcohol addiction, therapists and treatment providers can specifically teach emotion regulation skills as a core part of the recovery process.
By giving people the tools to manage their emotions without the use of alcohol, people are more likely to stay sober and achieve lasting recovery.
In the best treatment centers, this includes true dual diagnosis treatment – or treating alcohol use disorders and mental illness simultaneously. By recognizing that drinking is just part of a larger problem, and treating people more holistically, these treatment centers can drastically reduce the risk of relapse and increase their client’s overall state of wellbeing.
Overcoming an alcohol addiction can be incredibly difficult – but it is possible. In fact, most people will recover, provided they seek out professional help.
But recovery is about more than mere abstinence. When you put in the effort to achieve recovery, you may just find that life free from alcohol has so much more to offer than you’d have ever expected.