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Alcohol and Anger: Is There a Way to Stop the Rage?

Most adults in the United States drink alcohol at least occasionally. While about 30 percent of U.S. adults do not drink alcohol at all, about 30 percent drink less than one serving of alcohol per week, and the remaining 40 percent drink regularly at some level. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines moderate drinking as one to two servings of alcohol per day, fewer than seven days a week, on average. While many adults in the U.S. stick to this definition of moderation, about 10 percent of the adults in this country drink far too much – up to 74 drinks per week, which is about 10 drinks per day.

Alcohol consumption, especially binge drinking or heavy drinking, can lead to serious health problems. While some of the most concerning health problems include alcohol poisoning, liver damage, and an increased risk of cancer, people who drink too much can experience significant changes in their mental health. Increased anxiety and depression symptoms can turn into changes in behavior with some of the more common and disturbing being increased aggression and anger.

Where Does Anger Come From?

Anger is a normal emotion that can range from displeasure, irritation, or frustration to rage and lashing out. When anger gets out of control, it can become destructive to relationships, property, and quality of life. Some psychologists consider anger to be a secondary emotion, meaning it is a response to fear, sadness, or other changes to one’s emotional state, which may include brain chemistry changes associated with drinking.

There are many reasons why anger may surface. Among them are:

  • Feeling attacked or unsafe
  • Grief
  • Frustration
  • Disappointment or failure
  • Injustice
  • Rudeness
  • Tiredness
  • Hunger
  • Physical or psychological pain
  • Physical or mental illness
  • Stress from a traffic jam, close deadline, infidelity, loss, or general life stress
  • Embarrassment, teasing, or bullying
  • Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol
  • Intoxication on drugs or alcohol

The “angry drunk” is a bit stereotypical, but changes in brain chemistry that can quickly change mood may trigger this emotion. There are several reasons alcohol may trigger anger or aggression, which involve how alcohol affects the brain and body.

Alcohol and Anger: One Makes the Other Worse

Alcohol is a well-known disinhibitor, meaning it lowers your inhibitions. Many people who drink socially enjoy this experience because they feel closer to the people they are drinking with, they feel freer to talk, and they feel less constrained by others’ expectations. However, people who become angry when they’re drunk may not just experience this emotion more, but they also may feel more able to express their anger, which may be disruptive, frightening, or even dangerous.

Drinking alcohol and becoming even a little intoxicated can lead to poor judgment, which means you are less likely to be concerned with the consequences of your actions. If you are struggling with anger at a person or situation, you are more likely to express that feeling in a negative way when you are drunk, instead of trying to work through it constructively. Your behaviors may have a negative effect, but when you’re intoxicated, you are less able to make the decision to moderate or withhold those behaviors.

Alcohol is known to increase anxiety and stress as well. While drinking a little at the end of a hard day on occasion can help you feel better in the short-term, this behavior consistently, for a long time, can change how neurotransmitters are released in your brain. As your brain gets used to alcohol managing the calming neurotransmitters, it will start to lose the ability to manage these neurotransmitters without help. This can increase or trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety, which can make stress harder to manage. This experience also increases the likelihood that you will drink more alcohol more frequently to cope with higher levels of stress.

Drinking to the point of being drunk has been associated with increased levels of aggression toward oneself and others. It also has been linked to an increased risk of psychotic symptoms, such as delusions, and a greater risk of self-harm or suicide. While these measures are not specifically anger, they are signs of greatly increased aggression, which can start with angry outbursts.

Excessive alcohol consumption also is tied to higher rates of domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault, which can begin with anger as a sign that the situation will escalate. These forms of violence are not simply due to being stressed at work or a personal situation that can be resolved. They are indicators of an underlying behavioral or mental condition that is being exacerbated by drinking too much.

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse Can Ease Anger and Aggression

If you have noticed that your loved one’s mood changes while they drink or the next day, when the alcohol has mostly metabolized out of their system, they may have an underlying anger problem. This could be a mood disorder, mental illness, or behavioral disorder that leads to anger as a symptom, or the person could be struggling with high levels of stress and abusing alcohol as a coping mechanism.

If this person drinks too much and starts an argument once, you should return to the conversation later when you are both sober. However, recurring bouts of angry outbursts, arguments, threats, and aggression require a different approach than simply talking through these issues together.

When alcohol abuse is present, evidence-based treatment must include both a medical detox and rehabilitation, which offers behavioral therapy. Many addiction therapists specialize in anger management as one of many tools to stay sober and manage stress. Anger management training is not about suppressing these emotions or trying to get rid of feelings of anger altogether, but instead about learning how to understand what anger is a reaction to and work through that problem.

A therapist trained in anger management will help their client to:

  • Identify what triggers anger.
  • Learn how to calm down, like walking away for a few minutes or taking deep breaths.
  • Respond in a nonaggressive manner in the moment.
  • Find a calm state from which to begin a conversation.
  • Redirect energy and resources to constructive outcomes rather than aggression.

Managing stress is a crucial part of any rehabilitation program, and anger can be viewed as a sign of high stress. When used as a tool to indicate something is wrong, the experience of anger can be useful; however, alcohol can make stress and anger more intense. Detoxing with medical oversight, working with therapists in rehabilitation, and making an aftercare plan to maintain sobriety will all help decrease aggression. Ultimately, with effective treatment, you can learn to manage anger constructively. 

Sources

Think You Drink a Lot? This Chart Will Tell You. (September 25, 2014). The Washington Post. from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/09/25/think-you-drink-a-lot-this-chart-will-tell-you/?utm_term=.9923dc851968

Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health. (January 3, 2018). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

How Can I Control My Anger? (October 4, 2016). Medical News Today. from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/162035.php

Psychology Tools: What Is Anger? A Secondary Emotion. (February 3, 2014). HealthyPsych. from https://healthypsych.com/psychology-tools-what-is-anger-a-secondary-emotion/

The Effects of Alcohol on Your Body. (June 9, 2017). Healthline. from https://www.healthline.com/health/alcohol/effects-on-body#1

What Makes Someone an Angry Drunk? (December 21, 2011). NBC News. from https://www.nbcnews.com/healthmain/what-makes-someone-angry-drunk-1C6436937

Alcohol and Mental Health. (March 2, 2016). Drinkaware.co.uk. from https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/mental-health/alcohol-and-mental-health/

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