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Alcohol and Mental Health

Understanding Alcohol Blackouts and Personality Changes

May 18, 2024
17 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.
May 18, 2024
17 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.
May 18, 2024
17 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.
May 18, 2024
17 min read
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Reframe Content Team
May 18, 2024
17 min read

Alcohol Blackouts, Personality Changes, and Dominoes

  • Alcohol affects our cognitive function. Excess alcohol can affect memory and personality, both of which can affect our health, relationships, and more.  

  • We can stop the domino effect by finding the motivation to cut back, tracking our habits, reaching out for support, and 

  • Avoid the fallout of blackouts by quitting or cutting back on alcohol. Reframe’s neuroscience-backed program provides the tools, motivation, and support you need to change your relationship with alcohol.

You just woke up with a pounding headache to find that a friend has posted an embarrassing video of you singing a drunken rendition of “Sweet Caroline” at the local karaoke bar, and you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. Getting up on a stage is not in your playbook, especially when singing is involved. “Do I really sound like that?” you wonder. And more importantly, “Why don’t I remember this?” 

Unfortunately, lapses in memory and personality changes are a common part of booze-filled evenings. They can lead to innocent, albeit embarrassing, stage performances but also to more dangerous behaviors that can wreak havoc on our life.

In today’s blog post, we’ll explore the connection between alcohol use, memory, and behavior changes, and how these impact our health, relationships, and well-being. 

Alcohol’s Effects on Cognitive Function

A cross sign on the word 'alcohol', a bottle in hand, and the other hand showing a stop gesture

To fully understand blackouts, we have to understand how alcohol affects our cognitive function. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows down all the messengers (neurotransmitters) from our brain to the rest of our body. The more we drink, the more it impairs everything from our movements to our speech to our very consciousness. 

So, do you know what you're doing when blackout drunk? That’s a lot like asking about a tree falling in a forest. Alcohol directly targets the hippocampus, the primary structure in the brain responsible for memory. Excessive drinking disrupts the memory-making process, leading to the phenomenon of alcohol-induced blackouts. You may know what you’re doing in the moment, but you won’t have any memory of it the next morning. 

What Does Blacking Out Feel Like?

Distinct from passing out, alcohol blackouts are when we remain conscious but our brain fails to hit the “record” button. As a result, we often find large gaps in our memory from when we were intoxicated. 

So, what does blacking out feel like? It’s hard to say exactly given that most people don’t remember it, but from what we know about the general effects of alcohol, suffice it to say it’s a painful, confusing journey. The only tangible feeling is what comes the next day: you may experience one of two types of blackout:

  • En bloc blackout. This is when you have a single large chunk of information missing. Perhaps you remember throwing back that third shot of whiskey, and the next thing you know you’re riding home in an Uber a few hours later.

  • Fragmentary blackout. The most common type of blackout, fragmentary blackouts involve scattered memories with random chunks of information missing. These are also called “brownouts.”

For more details, check out our blog post “What Happens When You Black Out From Drinking?

Understanding Alcohol-Induced Personality Changes

In addition to blackouts, short-term and long-term personality changes are another common side effect of excessive drinking. 

Short-Term Effects 

You know how tight-lipped Uncle Joe gets super chatty when he drinks? Or happy Aunt Jody starts sobbing uncontrollably? Or perhaps you’ve heard someone described as an “angry drunk.” These are just a few examples of short-term personality changes brought on by alcohol. However, it’s not so much that their personality changes as it is that their normal filters and barriers come down, revealing other facets of their personalities. Could that be why you got up on the karaoke stage? Do you secretly seek the limelight?

Long-Term Effects

While short-term personality changes may make for embarrassing (and sometimes amusing) anecdotes, a repeated pattern of over-imbibing can lead to alcohol use disorder (AUD), which can alter our brain structure and chemistry, leading to lasting personality changes. Studies show, for example, that the more we drink, the more likely we are to struggle with anxiety and depression symptoms, which can significantly affect our mood.

Whether it’s an aunt who gets a little weepy when she drinks or a friend who is forever changed due to chronic misuse, it’s easy to see how alcohol can alter personalities and impact our lives. Let’s take a closer look at the possible outcomes. 

Impacts of Blackouts

The potential domino effect of drinking to the point of blacking out is nearly infinite. Every risk of normal drinking is present but to a higher degree: 

  • Health Issues. Blackouts usually happen due to binge drinking, meaning we drink way faster than our body can process, leading to faster intoxication. In addition to blackouts and personality changes, we run the risk of severe dehydration, heart problems, and alcohol poisoning, and those are only the immediate health risks. Consistent heavy drinking increases our chances of liver disease, cancer, heart disease, and stroke. 

  • Relationship problems. Binge drinking opens up a whole can of worms for relationships. Whether it's a significant other, a parent, a child, a sibling, a friend, a coworker, or a boss, heavy drinking can damage every relationship in one way or another. And heavy drinking is especially hard on families.

    Some people are angry when they drink and are more prone to violent blackouts. Some people are more amorous when they drink, making them more prone to inappropriate sexual encounters. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of all the things that could go wrong in either of those situations. 

  • Accident or injury. In addition to health hazards, when we drink to the point of blackout — referred to as alcohol-related amnesia in court — we increase the likelihood of serious injury and accidents to ourselves and others. The news is full of tragic stories that could have been avoided, and emergency rooms are filled with “hold my beer” stories on the weekends. 

  • Legal ramifications. Inappropriate relationships can lead to divorce and/or custody issues. Accidents and injuries lead to lawsuits. Violence leads to jail time. And all of these set in motion a domino effect of their own. Divorce leads to more family and financial strain. Lawsuits lead to money problems. Jail time leads to more relationship and money problems. You see where we’re going with this?
  • Long-term personality changes. Continued bouts of heavy drinking can alter your personality by changing your brain chemistry. It can make you more impulsive, depressed, anxious, and more prone to poor decision making. It can also shift your priorities, putting alcohol at the top of the list above people, work, and hobbies. It can also trigger more serious psychiatric disorders such as psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and panic disorder.

As they say in physics, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” The same applies to drinking: every sip we take can increase our risk of unintended consequences. The good news is that we can change our drinking habits, no matter how bad they may have gotten, and likewise reverse alcohol’s effects on our brain chemistry.

If you’re ready to kick alcohol blackouts out of your life, there are options. There is a whole support network of people at Reframe eager and willing to help you quit or cut back on drinking and live a healthier, happier, safer life. If you’re not ready to take that step, there are some things you can start to do on your own.

Prevention and Management Tips

Prevention and Management Tips

To start you on the right track, let’s explore some ways to prevent and/or manage drinking habits to reduce the risk of alcohol blackouts and personality changes:

  1. Find your “why.” Whether it’s your health, your family, your career, or something else, find a reason that motivates you to change your alcohol habits.  

  2. Write it down. The more you see the life you want, the more you will work toward it. Write your “why” down on a piece of paper and put it somewhere you can see it frequently. You can put it on your mirror, by your key hook, on your sun visor, on your desk at work, or anywhere else. The important thing is that you see it often to remind you of your reason for change. 

  3. Track your habits. Sometimes, we don’t realize how much we do something until we write it down. Write down every instance of drinking you can remember and reflect on whether or not it led to notable memory gaps or personality changes. Hint: you might only remember because it led to a big fight or an embarrassing video afterward. Once you see it on paper, you can make appropriate goals moving forward. (Reframe’s built-in drink tracker can help you do exactly this!)

  4. Pace yourself. Once you’ve noticed a pattern, set a goal and pace yourself. If you’ve noticed, for example, that you tend to drink a lot more on Fridays, consider setting a limit or adjusting your behavior for a few weeks. Could you skip happy hour? Could you pay with cash only so that you can only buy so much? Could you set a limit of two drinks or swap out a few of your normal drinks for a tonic and lime?

  5. Find alternatives. It’s easier to stop something when you have a new thing to replace it. If alcohol is your favorite drink, consider exploring mocktails. If your friends encourage you to drink excessively, expand your social circle. If you always stop at a bar on the way home from work, find an alternate route. If drinking is your favorite form of entertainment, open yourself up to a new hobby. 

  6. Seek support. One way to find a supportive social circle (if you feel you need to) is by joining a support network of people who are also trying to quit or cut back on drinking. You can join one online (like Reframe’s 24/7 Forum) or find one locally. 

  7. Celebrate milestones. As you move forward, make a point to celebrate every win. If going one day without alcohol is a big accomplishment for you, share the news with your support network and reward yourself with a little bit of self-care (just not with alcohol). Every small step counts on the journey to greater health and well-being. 

As you put in the effort to prevent and manage your drinking habits, you can avoid blackouts and start to feel more like yourself again. 

Next Steps

Alcohol has short-term and long-term effects on every part of our body, especially our brain. Heavy drinking can lead to blackouts, and chronic misuse can lead to personality changes. Both of these can lead to numerous negative outcomes in our personal and professional lives. But there is hope! With a little determination and help from our friends, family, and resources like Reframe, we can take control of our lives and feel more present again. 

Summary FAQs

1. What does blacking out feel like? 

Due to the nature of alcohol-induced blackouts, most of the signs of a blackout don’t appear until the alcohol wears off and we can’t remember what we said or did while we were drinking. A person may carry on conversations and appear relatively normal, albeit drunk, while blacked out. 

2. Do you know what you’re doing when blackout drunk?

You may know, or think you know, what you’re doing in the moment, but you won’t have any recollection of it afterward because the alcohol interferes with the brain’s ability to create short-term memories. 

3. How do you avoid alcohol blackouts and personality changes?

You can avoid alcohol blackouts and personality changes by drinking moderately or abstaining altogether. 

4. What causes violent blackouts? 

Alcohol affects each of us differently, but it is known to interfere with impulse control and inhibition. It is also known to cause irritability, anxiety, and/or paranoia. In some people, this mix can lead to violent encounters if they drink too much.

Say Goodbye to Blackouts 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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