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Alcohol and Mental Health

Should You Argue With a Drunk Person? What To Do When Things Get Rowdy

July 4, 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.
July 4, 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.
July 4, 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.
July 4, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 4, 2023
19 min read

Remember the scene in Friends where Monica makes a fancy dinner for a wealthy restaurateur in the hopes of getting a job in an elite restaurant, only to end up fighting him as he rummages through her kitchen, eating all the junk food in sight? The restaurateur is high as a kite, and there’s no use arguing with him — or asking him to hand over the Chex mix and wait for the meal.

Most of us have found ourselves in a situation when a friend becomes stubborn and belligerent after having a few too many. Should you engage in a debate, hoping to reason them back to sobriety, or do you hold your tongue? If you've been down this road before, you know it's tricky. There’s more to the story than anecdotal evidence, though — science tells us there are biological reasons that explain why arguing with a drunk person is often a lost cause.

When Booze Hijacks the Brain

Before we dig deeper into whether you should argue with a drunk person, it's helpful to understand what happens in the brain of someone under the influence.

Alcohol affects the brain in a big way. It slows down the function of the central nervous system, which is why reaction times get longer after a few drinks. More specifically, alcohol interferes with the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is responsible for reducing excitability in the nervous system.

On the flip side, alcohol inhibits glutamate, a neurotransmitter that normally increases brain activity and energy levels. The result is a decrease in mental and physical activity, slower reactions, and muddled thinking.

You've likely noticed that your drunk friend isn't exactly Einstein: alcohol impairs cognitive functions, such as memory, attention, decision-making, and impulse control. It's like trying to drive a car with a foggy windshield and flat tires.

Communication Glitch

In muddling our picture of the world, alcohol also messes with the way our brains interpret and respond to social cues, resulting in overreactions or misinterpretations. Ever noticed how drunk people seem to have a one-track mind? Alcohol can make it difficult to see things in context, leading us to hyperfocus on one aspect of a situation at the expense of everything else.

Emotions on Fire

Then there's emotional volatility. Alcohol can crank up emotions, leading to amplified feelings of happiness, sadness, or anger when we’re drunk. This emotional roller coaster can make it tricky to reason with someone who's had a bit too much.

In some cases, things can heat up even more, leading to aggression. Alcohol tends to lower inhibitions and impair judgment, which can sometimes lead to impulsive and violent behavior.

The Brain on Fire

Neurologically speaking, alcohol-induced aggression is all about the prefrontal cortex (PFC) — the area of the brain responsible for decision-making and social behavior. This is the part of the brain that typically reins in aggressive impulses. However, when alcohol comes into play, the PFC isn't as effective at controlling these impulses, which can lead to aggressive behavior.

Of course, not everyone becomes aggressive when they drink. Genetics, environment, stress levels, and even past experiences with alcohol can play a role in how a person reacts when they're intoxicated.

The Art (and Science) of Arguing

Even in sober circumstances, arguments are challenging. When you throw alcohol into the mix, you're faced with a hurdle race where the hurdles are on fire.

Arguing involves a high degree of cognitive function. It requires logical reasoning, understanding another person's point of view, and empathy. And remember those cognitive functions we talked about that get muddled when you're drunk? Yep, those are the ones we need to argue effectively.

Decoding Arguments

Navigating through a jungle of drunk debates? Sometimes it feels like you're in a maze without a map. Let's break down the most common types of arguments you might stumble upon:

  • The emotional explosion. We've all seen it — the drunk friend who is suddenly moping about a minor mishap from ages ago. These arguments are often rooted in raw emotions, unearthing past regrets or unspoken feelings.

Tip: Listen actively. This isn't about problem-solving but being there — they need an ear, not necessarily a solution.

  • Fact vs. fiction. Occasionally, an intoxicated friend might jumble their facts. From mistaking one celebrity for another to confusing historical dates, these debates can border on the hilarious or bewildering. (Remember when Dave thought llamas were native to Australia?)

Tip: Take it in stride. Correct them later if it's essential; otherwise, let it slide. You can always have a laugh about it later.

  • Values at the forefront. Deep-seated beliefs and values can surface, especially after a few drinks, leading to some heated conversations. Discussions about politics, religion, or personal principles can get intense, offering a window into your friend's core convictions — but not always in a productive or enlightening way.

Tip: Avoid diving too deep here and tread lightly. While it's tempting to delve into such subjects, remember that a drunk setting isn't always the best place for deep dives. Bookmark for a sober day.

  • The hypotheticals. The land of "what ifs." Often amusing and far-fetched, they can sometimes spiral into serious debates. "What if we could travel to a different galaxy?" or "What if we’re living in a simulation?" While mostly amusing, these can sometimes morph into serious life scenarios and debates.

Tip: Play along but set limits. Dive into the creative fun, but if things veer too off-course, get too wild, or become stressful, steer back to reality.

  • Pointing fingers. When things go south, a drunk mind might look for culprits. It could be blaming someone for a lost phone or a ruined evening. These accusations might be misplaced projections of personal frustrations.

Tip: Stay calm, be understanding, and try not to get defensive. Keep your defense minimal. Reassure the person, help with immediate solutions if possible, but avoid getting entangled in a blame game.

  • The quest to be right. Some arguments stem from the sheer desire to be right, even about the most trivial things. Driven by ego, they arise from the need to prove a point or assert dominance in a topic, regardless of its significance. (“The moon landing was a hoax!” “Shakespeare couldn’t have written all of his plays!” “The climate isn’t getting warmer!” You get the gist.)

Tip: Choose your battles. Let them have their moment, or change topics to avoid prolonged debate.

The Verdict: To Argue or Not To Argue?

The short answer: No, it's generally not a good idea to argue with someone who's drunk.

Why? When people are drunk, their cognitive functions are impaired, they may be emotionally volatile, and they're likely to forget the argument the next day. The chances of you getting your point across in a reasonable, effective manner are slim.

Conflict Resolution Tips: Drunk Edition

Dealing with conflicts involving someone who's intoxicated can be tricky. But there are a few key strategies to help you navigate these rocky waters:

  • Keep your cool. This doesn't mean you should agree with everything — rather, it means avoiding an argumentative tone and maintaining a calm demeanor. It's easy to match the heightened emotions and erratic behavior of a drunk person. Instead, stay calm and collected. This can help de-escalate the situation.
  • Deflect and redirect. Change the subject or suggest a different activity to distract from the current topic of conversation.
  • Set boundaries. If people are persistent, make it clear that you won't engage in an argument while they're drunk.
  • Use "I" statements. Make your concerns about their behavior known without blaming or criticizing. Instead of saying, "You're being ridiculous," try "I feel uncomfortable when you act this way."
  • Avoid confrontational language. Keep your language neutral and avoid blaming or accusatory phrases. Using phrases like "help me understand" can keep the conversation open and non-threatening.
  • Listen actively. Sometimes, a drunk person just needs to vent. Instead of arguing back, listen and acknowledge their feelings. You don't have to agree with them, but letting them express their thoughts can help them calm down.
  • Practice patience. Don’t expect immediate results. In their impaired state, it might take them a while to process what's happening. Even if things get heated, remember to breathe and stay calm.
  • Uncover the underlying issue. There's often a deeper sentiment or issue behind the surface. Try to understand that.
  • Discuss later. If it feels essential, circle back when both of you are sober and in a clearer headspace.
  • Know When To Walk Away. Not all discussions are fruitful. Know when to disengage and revisit later. If the person is becoming aggressive, ensure the safety of everyone involved. That might mean leaving the situation, calling for help, or getting the person home safely. If the situation is escalating and you're not getting anywhere, it's okay to bounce — especially if your safety is at stake.

Remember, these tips aren't a guaranteed solution for every situation. If things get out of control or turn violent, your safety should always be the priority. Every person's relationship with alcohol is different, and what works for one person may not work for another.

What If You’re the One Feeling Feisty?

Let’s flip the script! We’ve talked a lot about navigating arguments with others who've had a bit too much. But what happens when you're the one with a drink in hand and a debate on the tip of your tongue?

While alcohol might give you the liquid courage to address issues or dive into debates, it's essential to remember that it also blurs your judgment and amplifies emotions. Having a game plan and recognizing when you're headed towards an argument can save you from future regrets and ensure your night remains enjoyable. Here's a guide to help you pause and reflect before plunging into the depths of drunken debate:

  • Self-awareness is key. Recognize and admit to yourself that alcohol can make emotions and perceptions more intense. That burning urge to argue might just be the booze talking.
  • Take a breather. Feeling heated? Take a step back, literally and figuratively. A moment of fresh air or a quick walk can help you gauge if the argument is genuinely worth it.
  • Hydrate to mitigate. Balance out that alcohol with some good ol' water. It can help you think clearer and even combat the next day's potential hangover.
  • Seek a sober second opinion. If something's genuinely bothering you, find a sober friend. Share your thoughts and get their perspective. They might offer you a more level-headed viewpoint.
  • Bookmark for later. If you still feel the need to discuss or argue about something, make a mental (or even physical) note to bring it up when sober. Sleep on it, and if it still feels pressing in the morning, then address it.
  • Switch your focus. Put on your favorite song, engage in a fun activity, or start a light-hearted conversation topic. Changing your environment or mindset can divert the brewing storm of an argument.
  • Apologize when necessary. If you find yourself having crossed the line, it's okay. We're human. The next day, reach out, acknowledge your actions, and apologize if needed. Open communication can mend many misunderstandings and prevent lingering guilt, shame, and regret.

Summing Up

All in all, alcohol and arguments are an explosive mix that often leads to trouble. it's generally not advisable to argue with a drunk person — or to start arguments yourself, for that matter. It's like trying to play chess with a toddler — lots of noise and pieces flying everywhere, but little constructive gameplay.

Instead, using strategies such as deflection and boundary setting is your best bet. Last but not least, it’s also important to know when to walk away — and that it’s okay to do so, especially if safety is at stake.

And if you're looking to change your own relationship with alcohol, know that there are tools and support available to you. You've got this!

Summary FAQs

1. How does alcohol affect the brain and our cognitive functions?

Alcohol slows down the central nervous system, interferes with neurotransmitters like GABA and glutamate, leading to reduced brain activity and impaired cognitive functions such as memory, attention, decision-making, and impulse control.

2. Why might a drunk person experience heightened emotions?

Alcohol amplifies emotions, causing individuals to feel intensified happiness, sadness, or anger. This emotional surge combined with impaired judgment can lead to overreactions or misinterpretations of situations.

3. What role does the prefrontal cortex play in alcohol-induced aggression?

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is responsible for decision-making and social behavior. When influenced by alcohol, the PFC is less effective in controlling aggressive impulses, leading to potential aggressive behavior.

4. Is it advisable to argue with someone who is drunk?

Generally, no. Due to impaired cognitive functions and emotional volatility from alcohol, the chances of a constructive conversation are slim.

5. How can I effectively communicate with someone who's drunk and potentially confrontational?

Maintain a calm demeanor, deflect and redirect the conversation, set clear boundaries, use "I" statements, avoid confrontational language, actively listen, and practice patience. If things escalate, ensure everyone's safety.

6. What are the different types of anger someone might display while drunk?

The most common types include passive-aggressive anger, open aggression, suppressive anger, and chronic anger. Each type may manifest differently and require unique responses.

7. How should I respond to someone displaying passive-aggressive anger when drunk?

Stay calm, avoid reciprocating passive-aggressive behavior, and encourage open communication about their feelings.

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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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