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Drinking Habits

Liquid Courage: The Science Behind Alcohol and Inhibitions

October 27, 2023
19 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.
October 27, 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.
October 27, 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.
October 27, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
October 27, 2023
19 min read

“Liquid courage” is one of the most famous (albeit misleading) euphemisms for alcohol. At face value, it sounds great — who wouldn’t want to order “courage” on tap or uncork and pour it from a bottle purchased at a corner store? Like most things in life, however, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

And yet, the concept didn’t appear out of nowhere — booze does, indeed, lower our inhibitions and makes us more willing to do things we shy away from when sober. But what is liquid courage, exactly? And why does alcohol make you confident? Let’s dive into the neuroscience and psychology of alcohol’s influence on our brain and behavior to see the truth behind the boost of “bravery” alcohol allegedly gives us and the true meaning behind so-called liquid courage.

Where Does the Phrase “Liquid Courage” Come From?

A man drinking alcohol while using phone

This colloquial term captures how alcohol can lower inhibitions and anxiety, making us feel more confident and less fearful about taking risks or facing challenging situations.

At its core, “liquid courage” is all about the way alcohol affects the brain. Let’s take a closer look!

“Liquid Courage” and the Brain on Booze

When alcohol enters our system, it interacts with our brain's neurotransmitters — chemical messengers that allow neurons to communicate. It affects two neurotransmitters in particular: 

  • GABA. Alcohol increases the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, promoting relaxation and decreasing anxiety. This explains why after a drink or two, people often feel more at ease.
  • Glutamate. Alcohol decreases the effects of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, slowing brain activity and affecting judgment and impulse control. However, in addition to making us more likely to say what’s on our mind at dinner with our future in-laws or deciding to go home with someone we met that night at a bar, this can impair our ability to react quickly to dangerous situations — one reason drunk driving is hazardous.

The combination of these effects can, indeed, lead to an apparent boost in confidence or “courage.” But this doesn’t mean we’re genuinely braver or more competent — it’s just that our ability to judge risks and consequences becomes impaired (more on this later).

In addition to tweaking the activity of GABA and glutamate, alcohol also affects dopamine — the “feel-good” neurotransmitter that drives the brain’s motivation and reward circuit. The dopamine release is part of the reason people feel euphoric during the early stages of drinking. It can also add to the disinhibited, “top of the world” feeling associated with the illusion of liquid courage.

Liquid Courage and The Social Mask

While alcohol might make someone feel more sociable, confident, or outgoing, it's merely a mask. Over time, relying on booze for confidence can prevent us from developing genuine coping mechanisms and social skills. Moreover, this perceived confidence can lead to regrettable decisions. Here are a few examples, which might ring painfully true:

  • Oversharing personal information. At a work party, after a few drinks, Mary divulges sensitive personal issues or workplace gossip to a colleague. The next day, the information is the talk of the office. Mary feels embarrassed, and her professional relationships are at risk.
  • Misjudging romantic interactions. Mistaking friendliness for romantic interest, Ryan makes an unsolicited advance on a close friend. The next day, both feel tense and uneasy around each other, and the friendship is strained. 
  • Unfiltered comments. Feeling especially “honest,” Holly voices harsh criticisms or unsolicited opinions about a friend's life choices, causing unintended hurt and potential long-term rifts in the relationship.

How Dangerous Is Liquid Courage?

Let’s take a moment to think about this: is it courage or recklessness? Alcohol leads to a loss of inhibitions that masquerades as bravery. This distinction is vital, as alcohol can blur the line between courage and recklessness in dangerous ways. Booze might make us feel invincible, when in reality, our abilities (and our judgment) are compromised. Suddenly, actions that were too dangerous or inappropriate sober seem feasible or even appealing. This mismatch can be dangerous, leading us to take unnecessary risks.

And then there’s the dreaded morning after: actions taken in a state of reduced inhibitions often lead to regret once the boozy haze wears off. In addition to embarrassment, we might face long-term — or even life-altering — repercussions.

Here are a few examples of recklessness posing as courage:

  • Engaging in risky behaviors. Feeling invincible after several drinks, Lisa jumps off a high ledge into a pool. She misjudges the distance and ends up injuring herself.
  • Impulse purchases. At a bar, under alcohol's influence, Chris buys a round of drinks for everyone, only to wake up to a credit card bill far outside his budget.
  • Neglecting responsibilities. After a night out, Andrew forgets to pick up his cousin from the airport, causing inconvenience and disappointment.
  • Destructive actions. Frustrated and drunk, Jennifer starts a heated argument with a roommate and ends up breaking a valuable item in a moment of anger.

What True Courage Looks Like

What does “true courage” look like, compared to the “liquid” kind? At its core, true courage is a decision to face and overcome personal fears, adversities, or challenges. As Mark Twain famously said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.” It's rooted in understanding the risks involved and consciously choosing to proceed despite being afraid.

“Consciously” is the key word! Courageous actions are typically taken after weighing the pros and cons — they're informed choices driven by genuine intent.

Moreover, real bravery often stems from a strong moral or ethical belief that propels us to take a stand for a valuable cause or take action despite personal risks. True courage doesn’t come from a bottle; it comes from within and isn’t triggered by substances or external influence.

Let’s look at a few examples of true courage:

  • Standing up against injustice. Sally sees a coworker being discriminated against and reports the incident to higher management, even when others remain silent due to fear of repercussions.
  • Facing personal fears. After years of being terrified of water due to a childhood incident, Luke takes swimming lessons and gradually overcomes his phobia.
  • Making difficult choices for the greater good. A volunteer firefighter bravely enters a blazing building to rescue a trapped individual, putting their own safety at risk for the well-being of another.
  • Pursuing passions against the odds. Despite facing financial constraints and societal pressure to take a more traditional job, Hannah, a young artist, pursues her passion for painting.
  • Protecting the vulnerable. Grant, a teenager, intervenes when he sees another student being bullied.
  • Handling challenges with grace. Kimberly, a single parent, works multiple jobs to ensure her child receives a good education and a comfortable life, all the while maintaining a positive outlook.

  • Admitting mistakes and making amends. After realizing she gave incorrect information in a public presentation, Sue, a CEO at a financial firm, acknowledges and corrects her mistake.
The Drawbacks of Liquid Courage

The Drawbacks of Liquid Courage

While we touched on the aftermath of alcohol's transient confidence-boosting effects, let’s explore the pitfalls associated with "liquid courage" a bit further. What happens to our brain and body when alcohol reduces our inhibitions?

  • Increased risk of accidents. The reduced inhibitions and impaired motor skills that come with alcohol consumption increase the likelihood of accidents ranging from minor mishaps (such as tripping or spilling a drink) to major ones (such as car accidents or serious falls).
  • Memory blackouts. Consuming a lot of alcohol in a short span can result in blackouts, frightening periods when we don’t remember events. We’re not just talking about forgetting small details; a blackout means we can’t recall entire chunks of time (yikes!).
  • False perception of abilities. Alcohol might make someone feel they're better at tasks than they truly are. This overestimation can be dangerous, as when we think we’re okay to drive when we’re not or believe we can take on physically challenging tasks.
  • Emotional volatility. Alcohol can amplify emotions or cause mood swings. While someone might initially feel euphoric or relaxed, this can quickly turn to sadness, anger, or even aggression.
  • Dependence and addiction. If someone regularly turns to alcohol as a source of courage or relief, it can pave the way for dependence. Over time, they might find it hard to socialize, cope with stress, or face challenges without alcohol, leading to physical and psychological addiction.
  • Mental health implications. Regular alcohol consumption, especially in large amounts, can have long-term impacts on mental health, exacerbating issues like depression and anxiety. Some people might also experience guilt or shame due to their actions under the influence.

7 Action Steps for Building Genuine Confidence Without Alcohol

Finally, here are some ways to build genuine confidence as you set “liquid courage” aside and make room for the real deal:

  • Mindfulness meditation. Research has shown that mindfulness meditation can help reduce anxiety and improve focus. By practicing daily, even for just 10 minutes, you can develop a clearer, calmer mind.
  • Practice social skills. The more you engage in social situations without the crutch of alcohol, the better you become. Start small — a coffee chat with a friend, for example — and gradually build your confidence.
  • Set small goals. Setting and achieving small goals can provide a confidence boost. It might be as simple as striking up a conversation with a stranger or attending a social event alone.
  • Positive affirmations. Positive self-talk can reshape our neural pathways and encourage a more positive self-perception. Start your day with affirmations like “I am capable” or “I can handle this.”
  • Learn a new skill. Trying a new hobby or learning a skill can provide a sense of accomplishment. Whether it’s painting, coding, or dancing, mastering something new can boost confidence.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity has been shown to reduce anxiety and elevate mood due to the release of endorphins. Find an activity you enjoy, and make it a routine.
  • Seek support. Talk to someone — a friend, family member, or therapist — about your feelings and challenges. Sometimes, just discussing your concerns can provide clarity and relief, which can work wonders for building courage and resilience.

Own Your Story

While the term "liquid courage" may sound empowering, it's important to recognize the fleeting and potentially harmful nature of alcohol-induced confidence. Building genuine self-assurance without relying on substances is healthier — and more sustainable in the long run!

In the words of vulnerability expert Brene Brown, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Summary FAQs

1. What is the difference between true courage and "liquid courage"?

True courage is a conscious decision to face and overcome challenges, often rooted in deep values and purpose. "Liquid courage" refers to the temporary confidence or bravery people might feel due to alcohol consumption. While the former is genuine and commendable, the latter can lead to impaired judgment and regrettable decisions.

2. How does alcohol affect key neurotransmitters in our brain?

Alcohol affects several neurotransmitters, including GABA (which it amplifies, leading to sedative effects), Glutamate (which it suppresses, slowing down brain processes), and Dopamine (it increases its release, leading to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction).

3. Why is the dopamine response to alcohol so significant?

Dopamine is the "feel-good" neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Alcohol triggers a dopamine release, which can make drinking feel euphoric. However, over time and with heavy drinking, this can lead to a disrupted dopamine balance, potentially resulting in cravings, addiction, and mood disorders.

4. What are some examples of regrettable decisions made under "liquid courage"?

Examples include oversharing personal information, misjudging romantic signals, engaging in risky behaviors, making impulsive purchases, voicing unfiltered comments, neglecting responsibilities, and acting destructively.

5. How can alcohol as a "social mask" affect relationships?

Relying on alcohol for social interactions can lead to strained relationships due to actions taken under its influence or the perceived need for alcohol to engage socially. Over time, these factors can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and distancing from loved ones.

6. What are some examples of true courage in everyday life?

True courage can be seen in acts like standing up against injustice, facing personal fears, making challenging choices for the greater good, speaking out for what's right, and enduring tough situations with grace and positivity.

7. What should one be most cautious about when considering the effects of alcohol?

While alcohol might offer temporary feelings of relaxation or confidence, it's vital to be aware of its potential to impair judgment, reduce inhibitions, and lead to regrettable decisions. Over time, excessive consumption can also disrupt neurotransmitter balance, impacting mood and overall mental health.

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