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The Psychological Effects of Alcohol You May Not Know About

March 21, 2024

If you drink, you’ve probably noticed that alcohol can have a big impact on your mental state. In small amounts, it might make you feel a little happier, a little bolder, and a little more outgoing. However, the psychological effects of alcohol go beyond feeling good in the moment. We talked to psychologist Vanessa Kennedy, Ph.D., to learn more about some of the lesser-known long-term psychological effects of alcohol.

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1. Stress

It’s not uncommon for people to turn to alcohol when they’re feeling a little stressed — however, it may exacerbate the problem. Dr. Kennedy notes that over time, alcohol use increases cortisol, our body’s primary stress hormone, which affects mood and energy levels. Alcohol can impair our bodies’ ability to manage the stress response, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and other ailments.

Plus, “Alcohol may become an unhealthy replacement for healthier stress management methods, such as exercise, socializing, therapy, and creative activities,” says Kennedy. “When we sacrifice these other aspects of our health, we can become irritable. This may impact our relationships, further affecting our mood and overall happiness.”

2. Depression

Alcohol temporarily stimulates the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with feelings of pleasure and happiness. But “over time and with increased frequency of drinking, these neurotransmitters do not produce the same rush of good feelings, and they become depleted in the brain in its sober state,” says Dr. Kennedy. When we reduce the natural availability of feel-good neurotransmitters, we also increase the risk of depression.

3. Anxiety

Alcohol has a similar effect on the neurotransmitter GABA, which is known for producing a calming sensation in the body (and even helps you fall asleep).

“This effect might reinforce a pattern of drinking when we may associate alcohol with feeling good,” says Dr. Kennedy.

However, too much alcohol depletes GABA, which can cause feelings of anxiety and potentially induce panic attacks — even in people who don’t normally experience them.

4. Anger and aggression

Experts agree that there’s a strong connection between alcohol use and aggression, but the relationship is complex. One cause may be that alcohol narrows your attention, making it harder to see the bigger picture and easier to get hung up on things that you might normally shrug off.

Dr. Kennedy also notes that alcohol affects our executive functioning, which controls our impulses, planning, and decision-making. “When alcohol interferes with our ability to stop ourselves from taking actions we know are risky, we may put ourselves or others in harm’s way, or engage in behavior we feel remorseful about afterward,” she says.

The bottom line

While alcohol may feel like harmless fun in the moment, it’s important to be mindful of its psychological effects. Moderation is key when it comes to alcohol consumption; and if you’re struggling with alcohol dependence or its effects on your mental health, it’s a good idea to seek help.

Remember, there are plenty of other ways to cope with stress and improve your mood that don’t involve alcohol — like meditation, exercise, and deep breathing. And if you’re looking to cut down on your intake, there are tons of non-alcoholic drink options that won’t affect your mental state or make you feel like you’re missing out.

Read next: 16 Non-Alcoholic Drinks That Don’t Actually Suck

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