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Alcohol and Mental Health

Alcohol and Emotions: How Alcohol Plays with Your Feelings

November 29, 2023
19 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
November 29, 2023
19 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
November 29, 2023
19 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
November 29, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
November 29, 2023
19 min read

It’s Friday evening and you've had a long, exhausting week at work. You decide to unwind with a glass of wine or a couple of beers, hoping to relax and shake off the stress of the week. 

You're not alone: millions of people turn to alcohol as a way to cope with their emotions, to feel good, and sometimes even to tell the truth. However, what many don't realize is that while alcohol may provide temporary relief, it can play tricks on our emotions, affecting our long-term mental health.

In this post, we'll explore the science behind how alcohol affects our emotions and share practical steps to help you regain control over your drinking habits. Let’s get started!

Why Does Alcohol Make You Feel Good?

First things first: why is it that alcohol makes us feel so good, at least initially? Well, whenever we consume alcohol, whether it's a glass of wine, a beer, or a cocktail, it sets off a complex chain of reactions in our brain. One of the key players in this process is dopamine, that “feel good” neurotransmitter. Dopamine plays a central role in the brain's reward system, which is responsible for reinforcing behaviors that promote pleasure and satisfaction.

Here's what happens:

  • Dopamine release. Alcohol acts on various brain regions, including the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). These regions are part of the brain's reward pathway. When alcohol enters your bloodstream, it triggers the release of dopamine in the VTA.
  • Euphoria and relaxation. The surge of dopamine floods the nucleus accumbens, creating a sense of euphoria and relaxation. This is the "high" that many people associate with alcohol consumption. It's that warm, fuzzy feeling that washes over you, making you feel content and carefree.
  • Reinforcement. Your brain is wired to seek out pleasurable experiences. When you drink alcohol and experience this rush of pleasure, your brain takes notice. It recognizes alcohol consumption as a rewarding behavior and encourages you to do it again. Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to tolerance, meaning you need more alcohol to achieve the same pleasurable effects, which sets the stage for alcohol misuse or dependence

The brain's reward system is not solely responsible for the pleasurable effects of alcohol. Other neurotransmitters and brain regions, such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate, also play roles in alcohol's impact on mood and relaxation. These neurotransmitters help to slow down brain activity, contributing to the calming and sedating effects of alcohol.

The Initial Euphoria vs. Long-Term Mental Health: A Balancing Act

Given the immediate boost we get from drinking alcohol, it might lead us to ask: can drinking actually improve mental health? But to answer this, it’s essential to understand that our brain's reward system operates on a delicate balance. While alcohol may provide immediate pleasure, it can also have long-term negative consequences, particularly on our mental health.

As a depressant, alcohol slows down our central nervous system, including our brain. This slowing effect can negatively affect our state of mind and mental health. Let’s take a closer look: 

  • Alcohol and depression. Research shows that prolonged and heavy alcohol use can lead to symptoms of depression. Alcohol disrupts the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, particularly serotonin and norepinephrine, which play a role in mood regulation. This disruption can contribute to the development of depressive symptoms, such as persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, and changes in appetite and sleep patterns.
  • Alcohol and anxiety. Alcohol can also exacerbate anxiety symptoms. While it may initially provide relief from anxiety, it can lead to rebound anxiety as its effects wear off. Additionally, research shows that heavy alcohol use can affect the brain's ability to manage stress and anxiety, making it more challenging to cope with life's challenges.
  • Alcohol and stress. Many people turn to alcohol as a way to cope with stress, but this can be a double-edged sword. While a drink or two may temporarily alleviate stress, studies have shown that excessive alcohol consumption can actually increase stress levels in the long run. It disrupts the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain and impairs our ability to cope with stress effectively. This can lead to a vicious cycle of using alcohol to escape stress, only to find that it exacerbates the problem.

Alcohol can also interfere with our brain’s ability to regulate emotions and lead to mood swings, irritability, and difficulty managing stress.

For people already struggling with mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder, alcohol can be particularly harmful. Studies show it can exacerbate the symptoms of these conditions and make them more challenging to manage. In some cases, heavy alcohol use can even trigger the onset of mood disorders in individuals who were previously unaffected.

Does Alcohol Make You Tell The Truth?

Is there truth in the saying “in vino veritas” — the Latin phrase for “in wine, there is truth”? Do drunk people tell the truth more easily? 

Alcohol can indeed lead us to be more open and honest, but not necessarily in the way we might think. While under the influence, our inhibitions decrease, making it easier to say things we might otherwise keep to ourselves. However, this doesn't mean we're always telling the complete truth; alcohol can also impair our judgment and blur the lines between truth and fiction. Let’s take a closer look:

  • Inhibition reduction. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning it slows down brain activity. One of the key regions it affects is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for regulating our impulses, decision-making, and social behavior. When alcohol dampens the prefrontal cortex, our inhibitions decrease. As a result, we may be more inclined to speak our minds and express thoughts and emotions we might usually suppress.
  • Increased sociability. Alcohol can also enhance sociability by boosting the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which can promote feelings of happiness and relaxation. This enhanced sociability can lead to a greater willingness to engage in conversations and share personal information.
  • Reduced social anxiety. For some folks, alcohol can temporarily alleviate social anxiety, making them feel more comfortable in social situations. This can lead to greater openness and honesty.

While alcohol's impact on inhibitions and social behavior can lead to moments of candidness, it's crucial to recognize the limitations and potential pitfalls of this effect:

  • Blurry truth. Alcohol can impair judgment and cognition. This means that while we may feel more open and honest, your perception of reality may be distorted. What we believe to be the truth in the moment might not align with objective reality. Alcohol can lead to exaggerations, fabrications, and even false memories.
  • Selective honesty. Alcohol's effects on honesty are not uniform. Some people become more candid, while others may become overly guarded or irritable. The impact of alcohol on truthfulness varies from person to person and can depend on individual tolerance levels and mood.
  • Risk of regret. Being excessively honest while under the influence of alcohol can lead to unintended consequences. We may reveal sensitive information, make hurtful remarks, or damage relationships. It's essential to exercise caution and consider the potential repercussions of our words and actions when drinking.

Ultimately, the notion that alcohol can make us more truthful is rooted in the decrease of inhibitions and heightened sociability it can induce. However, it's crucial to approach this effect with caution and awareness of its limitations. Alcohol can impair judgment and blur the lines between reality and fiction, making it important to strike a balance between being candid and maintaining responsible behavior while drinking.

How to Control Your Emotions and Drinking

So now that we have a better understanding of how alcohol plays with our emotions, what can we do to regain control? Here are six tips for regulating our emotions and drinking:

1. Practice Mindful Drinking

Starting with mindful drinking is a crucial step in regaining control over your emotions and alcohol consumption. It can be particularly helpful to use a journal to track your drinking habits. Record when, why, and how much you drink on a regular basis. This journal can help you identify patterns and triggers associated with your alcohol consumption. For example, you may notice that you tend to drink more on stressful work days or during social gatherings. Recognizing these patterns is the first step in taking control.

2. Set Limits

Establishing clear limits for yourself regarding alcohol consumption is essential for maintaining a healthy balance. It’s easy to lose track of the amount of alcohol we consume. Decide in advance how many drinks you’ll have before you start drinking, and then stick to it. As a general rule, it’s best to limit yourself to one drink every hour. Using the Reframe app on your phone can help keep you on track

3. Do Emotional Check-Ins

Before reaching for a drink, it's essential to assess your emotions and the reasons behind your desire to drink. Here's how you can incorporate emotional check-ins into your routine:

  • Pause and reflect. Take a moment to pause and reflect on your emotions. Are you feeling stressed, anxious, or sad? Are you drinking to numb these feelings or as a coping mechanism? Identify the triggers driving your desire to drink to develop healthier alternatives.
  • Alternative coping strategies. Instead of immediately turning to alcohol, explore alternative coping strategies. Deep breathing exercises, meditation, or talking to a friend or therapist can provide healthier outlets for managing your emotions. These strategies can help you address the underlying emotional triggers without relying on alcohol.

4. Seek Support

If you find it challenging to control both your drinking habits and emotions, seeking professional help is a wise decision. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional or joining support groups specializing in alcohol-related issues. Therapy can provide you with valuable guidance and tools to address the emotional aspects of your drinking habits. Support groups can offer a sense of community and shared experiences, making it easier to navigate challenges.

5. Practice Stress Management

Instead of using alcohol as a means to relieve stress, explore healthier stress management techniques, such as: 

  • Exercise. Engaging in regular physical activity can help reduce stress levels and promote emotional well-being. Find an exercise routine that you enjoy, whether it's jogging, yoga, or dancing.
  • Mindfulness and meditation. Incorporate mindfulness practices and meditation into your daily routine. These techniques can help you become more aware of your emotions and develop resilience.
  • Nature and relaxation. Spend time in nature and engage in relaxing activities like hiking, gardening, or simply enjoying the outdoors. Nature has a calming effect on the mind and can provide a much-needed break from the stresses of daily life.

6. Build a Support Network

Surrounding yourself with a supportive network of friends and family is crucial for making positive changes. Friends and family who understand your goals can offer encouragement and hold you accountable. Having a strong support system can provide motivation and a sense of camaraderie on your journey to healthier habits. Openly communicate your goals of mindful drinking and emotional control with your support network. Let them know how they can assist you in achieving these objectives.

The Bottom Line

Understanding how alcohol interacts with our emotions is the first step toward regaining control over our mental health and drinking habits. While alcohol may provide temporary relief, it can also lead to long-term emotional and psychological challenges. By taking proactive steps to regulate your emotions and drinking, you can create a healthier and more balanced life. Remember, change takes time, and setbacks may happen, but with determination and support, you can achieve the emotional well-being you deserve.

If you want to cut back on drinking, but don’t know where to start, consider trying Reframe. We’re a science-backed app that has helped millions of people cut back on their alcohol consumption and enhance their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. 

Summary FAQs

1. Why does alcohol make you feel good? 

Alcohol makes you feel good initially because it triggers the release of dopamine, a "feel-good" neurotransmitter, in your brain. This surge of dopamine creates a sense of euphoria and relaxation, contributing to the pleasurable effects of alcohol. However, this effect is short-lived. 

2. Can drinking actually improve mental health? 

While alcohol may provide immediate pleasure, it can have long-term negative consequences on mental health. Prolonged alcohol use can lead to symptoms of depression, exacerbate anxiety, and increase stress levels. It can also interfere with the brain's ability to regulate emotions, potentially worsening mood disorders.

3. Does alcohol make you tell the truth? 

Alcohol can lead to increased openness and honesty due to reduced inhibitions and enhanced sociability. However, it can also impair judgment and lead to distortions of reality. The impact of alcohol on truthfulness varies from person to person.

4. How can you control your emotions and drinking?

You can regain control by practicing mindful drinking, setting limits on alcohol consumption, doing emotional check-ins, seeking professional support if needed, practicing stress management techniques like exercise and meditation, and building a support network of friends and family who understand your goals.

5. What can you do instead of drinking alcohol to cope with emotions?

Explore healthier coping techniques, such as exercise, mindfulness, and spending time in nature. These activities can help reduce stress levels and promote emotional well-being without relying on alcohol.

Take Control of Your Drinking With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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