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Alcohol and Mental Health

Drinking for the First Time: Tips To Keep in Mind

Published:
January 28, 2024
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20 min read
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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.
January 28, 2024
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20 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.
January 28, 2024
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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.
January 28, 2024
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20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
January 28, 2024
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20 min read

Drinking for the First Time?

  • Drinking for the first time is different for everyone; with mindful planning, it can be a positive experience.
  • Understand alcohol’s effects, stay mindful, and set limits for yourself to avoid excessive consumption.
  • The Reframe app offers resources for redefining your relationship with alcohol and keeping track of your use.

There are millions of stories out there about folks’ first time drinking alcohol. Although the details differ, there are several common themes: “I hated the taste!” or “I got sick as a dog.”

It’s hard to pin down how someone will react to alcohol because everyone is different — alcohol affects people differently based on their age, gender, weight, and health. The first time we drink alcohol is often the most unpredictable, but even among those of us who drink regularly, the effects of alcohol change as our tolerance increases.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what happens when we drink alcohol for the first time and provide some tips for beginners to stay safe with alcohol.

The Brain on Booze

So, what happens when you drink alcohol for the first time? Alcohol is just like any other drug in that it affects our body by playing with the chemicals in our brain.

Let’s take a look at the key neurotransmitters that cause intoxication and how they affect us:

  • Dopamine, sometimes called the “feel-good” chemical, is a major player in our brain’s reward circuit. Alcohol increases the amount of dopamine in our brain, giving us the characteristic “buzz” and motivating us to drink more. We also get dopamine bursts from other rewarding activities, like eating a good meal, going outside, accomplishing tasks, and spending time with loved ones.
  • Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter — it’s like the brain’s “go” signal. Alcohol inhibits the function of glutamate. As a result, we think and react a little more slowly. Smells aren’t as smelly, sounds aren’t so loud, and the world looks a little fuzzy. This glutamate slump is balanced by a rebound the next day, which can leave us feeling agitated.
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the yin to glutamate’s yang. As the brain's "chill-out" chemical, GABA is like a traffic light that slows down and stops signals in the brain and body, helping us calm down and avoid overstimulation. Alcohol increases GABA at first, making us feel relaxed, but after we sober up and our GABA plunges, we will have trouble relaxing.

While this chemical activity plays out all over the body, it’s mostly concentrated in two areas. 

  • The prefrontal cortex is located directly behind the forehead. It regulates thoughts, actions, and emotions by regulating executive functions — planning, prioritizing, attention, organization, working memory, and flexibility. When alcohol gets in the mix, these things become harder to do. We start to make poor decisions and our priorities shift.
  • The amygdala is located right at the center of the brain and controls memory, fear, and the “fight or flight” response. Alcohol inhibits the function of the amygdala, reducing our anxiety and making us feel fearless. This is closely tied to poor decision making from the prefrontal cortex.

The Body on Booze

We know how alcohol impacts our brain, but how does alcohol impact our body? How does our body respond to drinking for the first time?

The most prominent and obvious effect is the slow reaction time and poor coordination caused by glutamate and GABA imbalance. This is why, when drunk, people often stumble around or have trouble standing, and it’s also why drinking and driving is such a bad idea. These neurochemicals are also responsible for other physical effects of alcohol, like increased heart rate, sweating, and dizziness.

What To Do During a Drinking Party

Deeper in our body, our liver is working hard to process alcohol. Alcohol is metabolized by two liver enzymes: alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). Together, these enzymes break up the alcohol molecule and make it possible to eliminate it from the body. The length of time this metabolism takes depends on the amount of alcohol consumed, as well as age, gender, weight, health, and other factors.

Understanding these processes helps us understand how what we’re putting in our body affects us. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these things work a little differently in different groups of people. How different and for which groups of people? Let’s look!

Demographics of Drinking for the First Time

Early experimentation with alcohol among youth is very common in Western countries, as Arlette Buchmann and her colleagues reported in 2009. In the United States, nearly a third of us report having their first drink between the ages of 16 and 18. This finding is not surprising considering human brains and bodies don’t finish developing fully until around age 25.

Young brains are still developing the capacity to assess and understand risks, including the negative effects and consequences of alcohol. Alcohol also inhibits risk assessment, which perpetuates a cycle of drinking behavior. That’s one reason young people are so much more likely to binge drink.

A 2020 study by Briana Lees and her team reported that alcohol consumption during youth can alter brain structure, negatively (and maybe permanently) affecting cognition and function. Likewise, 2008 research by Dawson et al. found an association between age at first drinking and the risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD). They also found that many young people drink to get drunk rather than due to dependence.

For others beyond youth who may be drinking for the first time, being well-informed about alcohol’s effects is just as important. Inexperience means first-time drinkers of any age may be unable to know their limits, which leaves them unsure of whether or not what they’re experiencing is normal. As a result, the lessons we learn from getting drunk for the first time are often hard lessons. 

For all drinkers, newbies or not, the key to having a safe and enjoyable experience with alcohol is moderation. When we sip slowly, watch our intake, and set limits, we can avoid some of alcohol’s most awful short-term effects.

Defining Moderation

According to the USDA dietary guidelines for Americans, drinking moderately means limiting alcohol intake to fewer than two drinks in a day for men and one drink for women. The reason is the way the body metabolizes alcohol and how long it takes for it to get out of our system.

As a rough guideline, the liver can process about one standard drink per hour. However, all alcoholic beverages are not made equal, so one can of beer or cocktail could actually contain more than one standard drink. One standard drink is defined as 14 grams of ethanol — aka, pure alcohol. Here’s what that looks like:

  • 12 ounces of beer at 5% alcohol content
  • 5 ounces of wine at 12% alcohol content
  • 1.5 ounces of spirits or hard liquor at 40% alcohol content

Alcohol content is measured by a unit called alcohol by volume (ABV). 
It measures the amount of ethanol in the beverage. If a 12-ounce can of beer is 5% ABV, that means that 5% of the can is ethanol and the rest is mostly water.

It’s worthwhile to note that not every beer is 5% (although that’s a good guideline). Craft beer regularly exceeds 10%, which is closer in strength to a wine! Being mindful of the ABV allows us to choose our drinks wisely. Likewise, it matters how quickly we drink. Sipping on a beer over the course of an hour will affect us less than doing a shot of tequila.

How Long After Drinking Alcohol Am I Safe To Drive?

The fact that driving after drinking is illegal speaks to its dangers — and gives us a good idea of just how much alcohol affects our functions. Remember how it takes the liver an hour to process one drink? The general rule is to wait one hour for each drink we’ve had to give our liver time to catch up and do its job. Having three drinks with friends during Happy Hour means waiting three hours before driving.

Paying attention to this rule is important not only for the safety of ourselves and others, but because the legal consequences of drinking and driving are serious. We could lose our license, or even go to jail — and the consequences only go up when we commit other traffic violations (like speeding or running traffic signals) while intoxicated.

Stages of Intoxication

As previously noted, when we drink for the first time, we don’t know our limits or have a baseline to judge our state of mind. So how does it feel to be drunk for the first time? Let’s outline some basics. 

  • Tipsy stage. During this stage, we feel happy, chatty, and confident. Reaction time starts to slow down. Physically, we may feel warm, slightly numb, and have minor coordination issues.
  • Drunk stage. By this point, we are experiencing impaired motor control, blurred vision, impaired reaction time, racing heart, slow thinking, impaired judgment, blackouts, memory loss, fatigue. We may still be happy, but we’re also experiencing mood swings.
  • Danger stage. Once we reach “blackout drunk,” we are in a danger stage. When we black out — or lose awareness of ourselves and our surroundings — we are no longer exhibiting executive functions. We can get ourselves into regrettable or dangerous situations and possibly give ourselves alcohol poisoning. That can be serious and unfortunately is all too common among first-time drinkers who do not know their limits!

Avoiding the drunk and danger stages is ideal because, by that point, we may not realize how our actions can lead to serious consequences.

Tips for A Positive Experience

In general, monitoring and preventing excessive drinking involves setting realistic goals and recognizing triggers. Let’s consider several helpful strategies for any drinker but especially those drinking for the first time.

  • Practice mindful drinking. A drink should be a time to relax, wind down and enjoy. You can do this by sipping slowly and savoring each sip and taking the time to notice the flavors. What do you like or dislike about it? How is it making you feel? 
  • Hydrate! The best way to drink moderately is to alternate your alcoholic beverages with those that are non-alcoholic, such as water, soda, or juice. Alcohol dehydrates us, so replenishing is important — and it slows your alcohol consumption.
  • Cultivate social support. Be mindful that there are different types of drinkers, such as heavy drinkers, moderate ones, and abstainers. There is no shame in communicating openly with friends and family about your drinking preference by saying, “I’m just going to have one drink tonight.” On the other hand, if you know the group that’s asking you to join them are heavy drinkers, consider passing. Peer pressure is real! Surrounding yourself with a supportive network of like-minded drinkers can positively reinforce your drink choices.
  • Understand limits. You may not know what “too drunk” feels like, so educate yourself on recommended alcohol limits and stay within them. Discovering your limits after the fact is often not fun. Reflect on how you feel and consider keeping track in your phone’s notes app to stay on top of your state of mind.
  • Consider alcohol-free alternatives. Alcohol-free options are becoming increasingly popular, and they taste good, too. Restaurants now offer several mocktail options on their drink menus, making socializing without alcohol an enjoyable experience. Experiment and find the ones you like best. 
  • Reflect and journal. Some people find journaling a helpful way to reflect on their drinking experiences. Being able to document your experiences and how you felt at the time provides an opportunity to not only create awareness and insights but also to identify patterns, good and bad.
  • Seek professional guidance. Problem drinking can sneak up on any of us, first-time drinkers or not. For anyone who finds themselves struggling with substance misuse or dependence, seek professional help. There is a range of professional assistance from therapists, counselors, and support groups.

Takeaways

Drinking for the first time, especially at a young age, may feel like joining a club or “coming of age.” It may stem from a desire to fit in or simply be a response to curiosity. Remember, we do not need to drink if we don’t want to. But if you decide to drink, stay mindful and practice moderation to ensure a positive and safe experience.

Summary FAQs

1. At what age do most people in the US have their first drink?

Typically in their late teens and early 20s.

2. What happens when we drink alcohol?

Our brain chemicals start to change. An increase in dopamine makes us feel warm and fuzzy, and our prefrontal cortex (responsible for making good decisions) starts to slow down.

3. What is the length of time to wait before driving after drinking?

The general guideline is to wait one hour after having one drink before driving. Two drinks? Two hours — and so on.

4. What does being impaired mean?

Being impaired means that you are unable to function properly. When impaired, you may have trouble walking, slur your words when speaking, and have poor judgment.

5. Is being impaired the same as being tipsy?

Being tipsy involves experiencing euphoria, chattiness, laughing, and disinhibition. In this early stage, people are not yet considered impaired — but driving tipsy is not always considered different from driving drunk, and you can still face advanced legal consequences from poor decisions made while tipsy.

6. Why do the effects of alcohol vary from person to person?

Alcohol’s specific effects on people vary because of differences in gender, age, weight, and health.

7. How do I avoid getting drunk?

The best advice for how not to get drunk is to drink in moderation and drink slowly. Alternate between alcoholic beverages and non-alcoholic beverages, and be mindful of how many you’ve had. Don’t give in to pressure to drink if you’re trying to avoid being too drunk.

Stay on Top of Your Drinking

For many, drinking for the first time can be a fun experience, but for others, not so much. Still, for some people, their relationship with alcohol is raising some red flags. Whenever you find yourself in the drinking continuum, check out the Reframe app for lots of alcohol-related information and resources.

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills to survive drinking less and thrive while navigating 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 be able to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re constantly 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 you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! We launch fun challenges monthly, 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 seven days, so you have nothing 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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