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Alcohol and anger go together like two peas in a pod - alcohol releases anger and aggressive behaviors and anger and frustration lead to drinking (and for those trying to control their drinking - to relapse.)

While not everyone becomes aggressive after drinking alcohol, alcohol intoxication is associated with about half of all violent crimes in America and for people already prone to anger and violence, adding alcohol to the mix is like adding gasoline to a fire.1

Does alcohol bring out the worst in you? Want to know why? Read on to learn why drinking is so associated with anger, aggression and violence.

4 Ways Alcohol Facilitates Anger, Aggression and Violence

1. Alcohol Changes the Way You Process Intentionality

Alcohol can give you tunnel vision...

Alcohol reduces your ability to process multiple sources of environmental information; therefore it compromises your ability to evaluate the intentions behind the actions of people around you.

For example, you're leaving a football game after having had a few beers. Your team lost and as you walk out the exit ramp you're bumped/pushed by a man wearing the colors of the visiting team.

If sober, you might take a second to evaluate the situation and realize that the contact was likely accidental and quite normal given the crowded walkway - but when drunk your perspective changes and you lose this faculty of reasoning. When drunk, you are far more likely to view actions against you as intentional (that guy just shoved me on purpose!) and far more likely to respond with aggression...2

2. Drinking Erases Worries about the Possible Consequences of Aggression

You hear of bar fights but cafe fights aren't so common!

We use alcohol as a tool to ease social anxiety and to overcome social fears (having a drink or two before that wedding speech, for example), but once that drink or two turns into 3 or several, we also silence our normal fear of negative consequences.

When sober and angered you might feel an impulse to punch someone, but a fear/worry of the possible consequences (get hurt, hurt someone else, get arrested etc.) keeps you from doing so.

When drunk and angered you feel no such worry and are free to act according to your baser impulses.3

  • In research experiments, induced anxiety (being told you had to deliver a speech on camera about what you disliked about your body!) countered the normal aggression amplifying effects of alcohol consumption. Getting normal anxiety processes operational after drinking helps people to restrain their aggressive impulses.4

3. Social and Cultural Factors Allow for More Aggression after Drinking

Research shows that people are more likely to act aggressively:

  1. After drinking alcohol
  2. After drinking a non-alcoholic placebo drink which they believe contains alcohol

So why do people get more aggressive when they only think they've been drinking?

The answer may lie in social expectations that allow for more aggressive behaviors by drunk people.

You may perceive that when drunk your aggressive actions are more easily explained/forgiven and you may drink so that you can engage in aggressive acts without experiencing the same consequences (I'm no sorry honey...you know I ever would have hit you if I hadn't been drunk!)5

4. Alcohol Disrupts Executive Brain Functions

Alcohol basically lulls your executive command center (the forebrain) to sleep.

With impaired executive brain function you are less able to resist a wide array behavioral impulses.

This makes you more likely to binge on junk food, call ex-lovers on the phone late at night, drive while drunk and also to act verbally or physically aggressive to people who irritate or anger you.

What Kinds of People Are at Risk of Alcohol-Related Aggression?

While alcohol is clearly linked to increased aggression and violence, many people can drink and drink a lot without ever experiencing heightened anger or aggression.

Researchers don't yet have a complete understanding of the processes that lead some to aggression, but they have identified certain types of people who are more prone to alcohol-related aggression.

People who may need to minimize their drinking to avoid the negative consequences of alcohol-related aggression include:

  • People with Trait Anger
  • People with Low Executive Function

Trait Anger and Alcohol Aggression

 A number of research studies have confirmed something that makes a lot of intuitive sense – people who often get very angry and act aggressively while sober are very likely to get even more aggressive and angry when drunk.

If you are very easily angered when sober and if you have a hard time controlling your response to that anger then you are at risk to become even more aggressive after drinking alcohol.6

Low Executive Function

Executive function is a term used to describe the processes in the brain that control functions like working memory, reasoning, attention, planning and inhibition of impulses.

  • People with lower executive function, therefore, have reduced a reduced ability to inhibit aggressive impulses.
  • Acute alcohol intoxication further reduces executive function and this exacerbates the inability to resist behavioral impulses.

Basically - if you’re a person with poor impulse control, alcohol is only going to make things worse.7

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Page last updated 21/07/2015

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