Alcohol is a chemical depressant, which means that it depresses or inhibits nerve activity. So if we are upset, angry, or sad, then a drink will depress these feelings with the result that, after a drink, we will feel slightly better.
However the depressant effect also acts on the limbic system which is a set of six inner structures in the human brain which is believed to be the emotional centre of the brain. It is believed that the function of the limbic system is to control our emotions and behaviour (and interestingly also believed to be responsible for forming long-term memories). When alcohol depresses the function of the limbic system its ability to regulate our emotions decreases, with the result that our emotions tend to run unchecked. This is why drunks tend to be overly emotional, be it angry, aggressive, sad, self-pitying, argumentative or regretful.
So let’s now leave the science behind and look at a practical example. You have an argument with your partner and feel angry. You take a drink and feel better. The initial ‘boost’ (ie the deadening of the negative feeling of anger) dissipates and you very quickly end up just as angry as before and need another drink to dampen the anger. And so the drinking continues.
You can probably already see the problem with taking a drink to relieve anger, stress, misery etc. The drinking has to continue for the relief to continue. However there are three additional problems that we need to factor in.
Firstly, as alcohol is a depressant the brain will seek to counter its effect by releasing stimulants and stress hormones to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol (this is dealt with in more detail in Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained on ‘The Physiological Effects of Drinking’ which can be found in the 1st 5 Chapters here). So when the mental relaxation caused by the alcohol wears off we are not back to where we started. The stimulants remain with the effect that we are more uptight and stressed than before we started.
Secondly the mental deadening effect which provides relief from the anger dissipates far quicker than the physical intoxication. This is dealt with in Chapter 5 of Alcohol Explained on ‘The Relaxing Effects of Alcohol’ which can also be found in the 1st 5 Chapters (here) but suffice to say that we become increasingly intoxicated as we chase the fleeting feeling of mental relaxation.
The third problem is that the physical intoxication affects the limbic system, with the result that as we continue to drink our brains become increasingly unable to regulate our emotions (in this case anger).
The overall result of this is that we end up far angrier than we ever would have had we not drunk, which is a key point given that we only started drinking to alleviate the anger in the first place.
It helps to think about it with figures. Let’s say that your anger ranges from zero to one hundred, with zero being no anger and a hundred being as angry as you could possibly be. Let’s say your argument result in you being 10 points angry. One drink relieves 7 of those points so now you are only 3 points angry. However that drink also has an effect on the limbic system which prevents any anger being properly regulated, so although it removes 7 anger points due to it depressing the actual emotion, it adds 2 anger points as the limbic system is affected. So the net gain is that you are actually 5 points less angry than you were. At this stage you have gone from 10 anger points to 5.
Of course the mental relaxation effect of the drink (which has the immediate effect of dampening down the anger) all too soon wears off, so you quickly regain the 7 points of anger you have lost, however the physical intoxication effect on the limbic system does not wear off. So you are now 12 points angry (the original 10 plus the 2 you have gained as a result of the decline in the effect of the limbic system). So you take another drink and the same process occurs; you get a short terms relief of the 7 but a long term gain of the 2, so the short term effect of the second drink is to take you from 12 (the start) to 5, with the long term effect of you ending up at 14 points of anger. It is easier to see on the graph below. The height measurement is how angry we are, with it being the higher the angrier. The horizontal line is time passing. The even numbers are our taking a drink and obtaining some relief, with the relaxing effect of that drinking wearing off at the odd number, so the dips are when we have a drink and the peaks are the mental relaxation effect of the drink wearing off.
Each drink does provide us with an actual boost, but this is outweighed entirely by the effect on the limbic system with the effect that very soon we are far angrier then we were to begin with, even while we are actually ‘enjoying’ the ‘relief’ provided by the drink.
This actually makes perfect sense if you think about it, if you think that alcohol relieves anger, misery, frustration, etc, then alcoholics (who drink the most) would surely be the happiest people on the planet. Drunks would be the most calm and happy people, and those least likely to get into a fight. This is clearly not the case.
There is a very big difference between people drinking to relieve negative emotions (which they clearly do) and alcohol actually relieving negative emotions (which is clearly does not, in fact it does completely the opposite by greatly exaggerating them).
If you want to consider further the very important implications of this then you should re-read Chapter 3 (The Subconscious) which can also be found in the 1st 5 Chapters here and consider it in relation to the workings of the subconscious. In particular consider the implications of the following:
Your subconscious mind will recognise that an alcoholic drink will relieve the feelings of anxiety and depression because the drink and the relief will be close together chronologically. You will take a drink and very shortly after this you will experience the relief. However, it will not associate the alcoholic drink with the cause of the anxiety and depression in the first place as it takes far longer for the anxiety and depression to accumulate after the final alcoholic drink has been drunk.
Exactly the same applies to alcohol’s effects on our emotions. The subconscious will only recognise the effect of alcohol relieving our anger, stress, upset etc and will not recognise the overall increase in these emotions accumulates far more slowly. This is how we can end up in this very strange situation where we all know that alcohol makes people far more emotionally unstable, yet we still all ‘instinctively’ reach for a drink to relieve our anger, stress, upset, etc.