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Alcohol and Mental Health

Why Do I Get Angry When I Drink?

July 2, 2023
13 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 2, 2023
13 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 2, 2023
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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 2, 2023
13 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 2, 2023
13 min read

Why do I get angry when I drink? If you've ever wondered why a refreshing drink sometimes leads you down Anger Avenue, you're not alone. Despite enjoying alcohol's initial relaxing effects, many people experience a surge in agitation or even downright aggression. So, what's going on inside our brains when this happens? Let's find out the correlation between alcohol and anger.

Why Does Alcohol Make You Angry? The Science Behind Booze-Fueled Rage

Alcohol does some funny things to the brain. When it first hits, it often brings a wave of relaxation, as the brain goes into slow-motion mode. Two key neurotransmitters — glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) — are responsible for this effect. Glutamate (a neurotransmitter that increases brain activity and energy levels) gets suppressed, while GABA (which reduces energy levels and calms the brain) is enhanced by alcohol. Our reactions become sluggish, our speech may slur, and our inhibitions drop. After a few drinks, we might feel more relaxed or even sleepy.

But here’s the kicker: sluggishness is just one side of the alcohol coin. The other side involves the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that's like the executive director of our actions. It helps us make decisions, judge situations, and — most importantly — control our impulses. With the prefrontal cortex impaired, we’re more likely to act without thinking, which can easily lead to aggressive behavior if we’re provoked or irritated. 

As we continue to drink, the alcohol starts to affect different parts of the brain, especially those responsible for aggression and self-control. It’s like the brain is on a wild roller coaster ride — one minute we’re peacefully cruising along, and the next, we’re rocketing down a steep slope with the wind screaming in our ears.

Specifically, alcohol impacts the amygdala, the neurological security guard that stays on the lookout for danger and helps us react appropriately. But alcohol — sneaky culprit that it is — messes with the amygdala's communication channels, impairing its ability to interpret social cues. That innocent remark from a friend? It suddenly sounds like a jab.

Moreover, alcohol lowers the levels of serotonin — a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our mood. As serotonin dips, feelings of anger and aggression can surge. It’s like the brain’s peacekeeping force is suddenly MIA, allowing a mob of rowdy emotions to take over.

The Vicious Cycle of Angry Drinking

What’s worse is this can become a vicious cycle. Let’s say we’re already a bit stressed or irritable. We reach for a drink to take the edge off. While it might help momentarily, as we continue to drink, the alcohol disrupts our brain chemistry, increasing our chances of feeling angry. This anger then feeds into our stress, and what do we do to alleviate the stress? Reach for another drink. So it's not a matter of what specific drink makes you angry, but the nature of drinking itself that creates the cycle. And as the cycle continues, it becomes a never-ending episode of a drama series you can't switch off.

Why Does Alcohol Make You Angry? The Individual Differences

You might still be asking "Why do I get angry when I drink alcohol?” and wonder if there are any unique or personal factors that might make it more intense. Well, your genes may actually play a part in it.  We're all different, and that holds true when it comes to the effects of alcohol. Some people might become more cheerful, while others turn into a simmering pot of anger. Why is that?

Research suggests that our genetic makeup plays a role in how we react to alcohol. Certain gene variants might make some of us more susceptible to alcohol-induced aggression. So, if we’re part of the "angry-when-drunk" or “angry alcoholic” group, we might have our genes to blame.

Our emotional state before drinking can also influence how we behave under alcohol's effect. If we’re already feeling angry, upset, or stressed out, alcohol can magnify these feelings. In this case, our angry outbursts might be more about what's going on inside us than the alcohol itself.

Finally, our past experiences with alcohol can shape our behavior. For instance, if we’ve previously used alcohol as a coping mechanism for anger or stress, we’re likely to associate drinking with anger. And since “neurons that fire together wire together,” the link can lead to more angry outbursts.

Diagram about the 12 ways to break the cycle of anger due to alcohol

Breaking the Cycle: How To Stop Being Aggressive When Drunk

So, what can we do about this problem of anger and alcohol? Let's get down to some practical, scientifically grounded tips that can help you break free from the angry drinking cycle:

  • Decode your emotional triggers. Jot down the moods, emotions, or situations that typically precede your drinking-induced anger. Note how you felt before you started drinking, and how that feeling changed after. Over time, you'll see patterns emerge that can help you predict and manage your emotional triggers. It’s like knowing there's a pothole on your route home — once you're aware of it, you can easily avoid it.

    Start keeping a mood diary, using different colors for different moods. Track how you feel before, during, and after drinking. Over time, you'll notice patterns and identify your anger triggers more accurately.
  • The one-to-one rule. For every alcoholic drink you have, follow it up with a non-alcoholic one. This can be a fun mocktail, a refreshing iced tea, or simply water. This will help you stay hydrated and pace your alcohol intake.
  • The buddy system. Let a trustworthy friend know about your goal to curb alcohol-induced anger. They can help you keep track of your drinking, step in if they see you getting agitated, and provide moral support.

    You can even practice managing your triggers through role-play. Have a friend mimic a situation that normally makes you angry when you're drinking — it’s a safe space to explore different reactions and find healthier responses.
  • Tame your brain. Cognitive behavioral techniques can help you manage anger and stress without the need for alcohol. Learning these techniques might involve working with a therapist, but there are also many self-help books and online resources available.

You can also try short mindfulness exercises or meditation when you feel your anger levels rising. There are plenty of smartphone apps with guided meditations under five minutes.
  • Find a distraction. Studies show that distracting yourself can dial down the anger — unlike rumination, which tends to amp it up. 

  • Anger art therapy. Channel your anger into creating something beautiful. Painting, sculpting, even splattering paint on a canvas can serve as an outlet for your emotions. Plus, you'll have a piece of art to show for it!
  • Create a "cool-down" playlist. Music is a great way to change your emotional state. Create a playlist full of calming, happy tunes. When you feel the anger surging, plug in your headphones and let the music soothe you.
  • Develop a personal mantra. Find or create a powerful phrase that resonates with you, something that can help calm you when your anger flares. It could be as simple as "Stay cool," or, "I am in control." Repeat it to yourself in heated moments.
  • "Anger jar" activity. Much like a swear jar, an "anger jar" can be a fun way to keep your impulses in check. Every time you successfully manage your alcohol-induced anger, drop a token or a coin into the jar. It's a visual reminder of your progress!
  • Engage in physical activity. You can channel your bottled-up anger into a physical activity — for example, by going for a brisk walk. Ever tried boxing? It's a fantastic way to vent frustration, and you don't even need a punching bag. Shadow boxing in your living room works just as well.
  • Practice gratitude. Reflecting on the positive aspects of your life can help shift focus away from negative emotions. Start a gratitude journal, or take a few moments each day to consciously appreciate the good around you.
  • Join a support group. Connecting with others facing the same struggles can be enormously reassuring. Support groups, both offline and online, can offer a safe space to share experiences and gain valuable insights.

Remember, everyone is different: what works for one person may not work for another. Feel free to get inventive with these suggestions, molding them to fit your unique journey towards managing alcohol-induced anger. Above all, be patient and kind to yourself through this process! After a bit of exploration, you’re sure to find ways to stop being aggressive when you

Wrapping Up

Understanding the science behind your anger when drinking can empower you to make healthier choices and help you find ways to stop being aggressive when drunk. It's all about self-awareness, taking small but consistent steps, and seeking help when needed. Just like navigating any tough situation in life, it might not be easy, but it's definitely worth it. 

Change doesn't happen overnight — and that's okay. Every step you take towards understanding and managing your anger when drinking is a step towards a healthier, happier life. Celebrate your small victories and keep going! 

And if alcohol turns you into an anger machine more frequently than you’re able to keep up with, it might be time to rethink your relationship with it. Remember, it's all about knowing your limits and understanding what is right for your body!

Ready for Less Anger and More Peace?

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 doing so. 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.

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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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