‘Chemical Romance’: How Alcohol Can Impact Your Brain & Your Relationships

Meaningful relationships can add tremendous value to our lives, improve our emotional wellbeing, create stability, and give us support through challenging times. Regardless of how much we value our friendships and family relationships, excessive drinking can cause us to act in ways that hurt or push away those we love the most.

This is especially complex for people navigating alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is characterized by drinking more than you want to and for longer than you want despite wanting to cut down. It can be hard to see how your drinking is impacting others, which can lead to self-destructive behavior. Fortunately, it’s possible to both develop healthier drinking habits and repair strained relationships. In fact, the two often go hand-in-hand. As a therapist at Monument, I witness this healing process every day.

If you’ve noticed your drinking habits have had a negative impact on your relationships, it may be time to take a closer look at your relationship with alcohol. A great first step is to gain a better understanding of why alcohol can negatively affect our connections with loved ones. Read on to learn about alcohol and relationships.

How alcohol can change our behavior

While under the influence of alcohol people often make decisions that don’t align with their true values  and there’s a biological reason for that. Alcohol impairs the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls our “executive functions.” This dysregulation of the prefrontal cortex leads to physical changes, such as slurred speech, poor memory, and slowed reflexes. It can also cause you to act in ways that don’t reflect your authentic self. The interaction of alcohol in the brain can impact:

  • Judgment
  • Impulse control
  • Management of aggression
  • Emotional regulation
  • Planning
  • Reasoning
  • Social skills

Alcohol can also reduce the ability to recognize social and emotional cues such as facial expressions, which reduces one’s ability to empathize with others. Considering all the effects alcohol can have on our functioning, it’s common to see the following behaviors when someone is intoxicated:

  • Self-centeredness
  • Absence
  • Anger
  • Arrogant behavior

couple sitting apart on a bed

An intoxicated person may be more likely to say hurtful things, make poor decisions, have affairs, act selfishly, and take unnecessary risks. In some cases, it can lead to violence and domestic abuse. Actions taken while intoxicated can hurt oneself and others, leading to negative consequences like trust issues, resentment, avoidance, and/or codependency

While these alcohol-induced behavioral changes subside as the body processes alcohol, the harm caused to personal relationships can have long-term effects. These actions and behaviors that can occur after unhealthy alcohol consumption often cause friends and family to feel like their loved one has an “alcohol problem.” This is further complicated by the fact that when someone has AUD, it can be difficult for them to recognize how their drinking affects others. This is because of chemical changes that take place in the brain.

The ‘chemical romance’ between alcohol & the brain

After long periods of heavy drinking, it’s possible that an individual’s brain will adapt to perceive its relationship with alcohol as more important than any other relationship with a friend or family member. This doesn’t mean friends and family aren’t meaningful to the person navigating AUD. It means that their brain has become chemically altered by alcohol to the point where it sees alcohol intake as crucial to survival. Let’s break down why that is.

Each time a person becomes intoxicated, the brain releases dopamine, which is the “feel-good” hormone. Dopamine acts as a reinforcement to guide our behaviors. When our ancient ancestors would gather food and secure a meal, it would cause a dopamine release so that the brain would remember the behavior and be able to repeat it. Similarly, dopamine is released whenever we feel a sense of accomplishment to reinforce the positive behavior. The release of dopamine is an instinctual act in humans for the purpose of survival.

While alcohol is not beneficial to our survival, the act of drinking alcohol causes the same dopamine release, which reinforces the behavior of drinking and encourages us to repeat it. Eventually, the brain instinctually and subconsciously starts to believe that drinking alcohol is necessary for survival. This can cause what medical experts call ‘alcohol dependence,’ where the body starts to rely on alcohol to maintain its basic functioning. This alcohol dependency is the same reason why people can experience dangerous and even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms if they quit alcohol cold turkey. Once someone develops alcohol dependence, seeking alcohol becomes the most important thing, and it can be very difficult for them to maintain healthy personal relationships.

Person walking alone on beach

Why these chemical changes can lead to isolation

When someone’s brain has adapted to view alcohol as essential for survival, they will likely become angry at anyone who confronts them about it. This has to do with the body’s “fight or flight” response. When drinking habits are challenged, it creates a reaction in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for perceived fear. The amygdala responds to the perceived fear of ‘losing’ alcohol by sending chemical signals to the hypothalamus, which stimulates the body’s “fight or flight” glands. This response prompts an individual to stay and ‘fight’ or flee to safety, and in this scenario, can lead an individual to become angry and/or self-isolate from others. 

Over time, these intense reactions can lead to various behavior changes, such as lying about alcohol consumption, hiding alcohol use, and avoiding others so that drinking habits can be maintained. These actions can distance and discourage friends and family who want to see their loved one get better. 

Remember, alcohol does not come with a warning label

Have you ever seen a warning label with all the side effects and warnings associated with alcohol? Nor have I. Not one of us would ever set out to purposely seek to develop alcohol use disorder, especially if we were adequately aware of the risks. The use of alcohol covertly and gradually affects the brain so that dependency is often not noticed until negative consequences start to occur. 

As you continue to learn more about alcohol dependence, you will recognize that your drinking habits have absolutely nothing to do with who you are, your morality, or your love for your family and friends. If alcohol problems are affecting your relationships, remember that AUD is the result of a chemical reaction tied to your fight or flight survival glands and reinforced by the chemical release of dopamine. There is no shame in having developed alcohol use disorder, and healing is within reach.

Man sitting by the road

How alcohol use disorder is treated

AUD is a treatable condition. There are evidence-based treatments proven to help people cut down on their drinking. There are FDA-approved medications, such as naltrexone, that can effectively block the release of dopamine when alcohol is consumed. This can help lessen the association between alcohol and pleasure/reward in the brain. Another treatment proven to help reduce heavy alcohol use is specialized alcohol therapy. As a therapist at Monument, I help patients identify the underlying issues behind their desire to drink, restructure how they think about alcohol, and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Monument therapists are specialized in treating substance use disorders, and can help you navigate any relationship challenges along the way. 

Explore treatment options at Monument →

person with sunset and birds

How to repair relationships as you change your drinking

While we can’t change our past actions, we can work on our current relationship with alcohol, address any related mental health concerns, and repair personal relationships. Two keys to this process are to build a support network, and to start reconciling relationships.

Finding support and community

Building your own support network can help you find accountability and encouragement as you change your relationship with alcohol and build back personal relationships. Your support system might include recovery support groups, online forums, and trusted loved ones. 

Finding a judgement-free community can help you work through feelings of isolation or shame. If a traditional 12-step program isn’t for you, there are many alcoholics anonymous alternatives to choose from. As a Monument-network therapist, I moderate several alcohol support groups. You can join as anonymously as you like, and only share when you feel comfortable doing so. I have been tremendously impressed by the pervasive resilience, genuine positive regard, honesty, kindness, and incredible insights the group members share with each other.

couple smiling with a computer

Reconciling with your partner or loved ones

When you feel ready to discuss your changing relationship with alcohol with loved ones, begin an honest conversation. You can share that you have AUD, a medical condition, and that you’re getting treatment just like you would for any other medical affliction. Providing them with opportunities to learn more about alcohol use disorder can help them gain a greater understanding of what you’ve been experiencing. If you’re in a Monument treatment plan, you can share this resource with them: Someone You Love Joined Monument. Now What?

You can also take this opportunity to apologize for past hurtful actions that led to relationship problems, and ask them how you might make amends. If your partner or loved one is hurt, give them time. Actions speak louder than words. Show them you are committed and want to achieve your goals. Another helpful step is to explore therapy and support groups together. While we don’t currently provide couples therapy at Monument, we do host the support group “Making Progress Together,” where you and your loved one can both join a supportive conversation and learn ways to support each other.

You may have to accept the possibility that some relationships can’t be built back to where they once were, especially if domestic violence was involved. With time and communication, chances are your loved ones will offer their support and want to see you get better. Here are more therapist tips for telling a loved one you’re getting treatment.

man and woman talking outside

Changing your drinking habits can have a profound effect on your entire network of friends and family. It often also requires working on repairing relationships and practicing self-forgiveness along the way. The journey can be challenging, but it is very much worth it. One of the greatest gifts of sobriety or moderation is the ability to fully appreciate the people in your life, and make new authentic memories together. Looking for a healthy relationship with both your loved ones and alcohol? Monument is here to help.

Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.


Sources:

Hazelton Betty Ford Foundation, Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain and Cognitive Improvement in Recovery, Butler Center for Research | May 1, 2015

https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/education/bcr/addiction-research/alcohol-effects-brain-ru-515#:~:text=Alcohol%20has%20a%20profound%20effect,poor%20memory%2C%20and%20slowed%20reflexes.

Fight, Flight, Freeze: What This Response Means, Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD — Written by Kirsten Nunez on February 21, 2020

Important safety information:

Naltrexone has the capacity to cause hepatocellular injury (liver injury) when given in excessive doses. Naltrexone is contraindicated in acute hepatitis or liver failure, and its use for a patient with active liver disease must be carefully considered in light of its hepatotoxic effects. 

In the treatment of alcohol dependence, adverse reactions include difficulty sleeping, anxiety, nervousness, abdominal pain/cramps, nausea and/or vomiting, low energy, joint and muscle pain, headache, dizziness, and somnolence. This is not a complete list of potential adverse events associated with naltrexone hydrochloride. Please see Full Prescribing Information for a complete list

About the Author

Mark ZaussMark is a licensed mental health counselor in Florida with over 12 years of experience. He is a board-certified clinical mental health counselor by the NBCC — (National Board for Certified Counselors), a nationally certified counselor by the NBCC as well as a Board Certified Telehealth provider for online counseling. Mark is also a qualified supervisor. He graduated with honors from Rollins College which is recognized as one of the highest-rated colleges in the U.S. for mental health counseling. His specialties include treating anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, fear of being in a public place, social anxiety, relationship issues, career problems, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and substance abuse and addiction issues. Mark also specializes in helping others cope with new and difficult situations while having to adjust to a new way of life-related to the pandemic.