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What Are the Risks of Lowered Inhibitions From Drugs or Alcohol?

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People who have consumed drugs or alcohol often do things that are outside their comfort zone. You can likely remember instances when you were more social, friendly, or able to relax in an environment where alcohol or drugs were present.

This is because of lowered inhibitions. These are caused by a momentary lapse in control of your actions as a result of alcohol or drug consumption.

Inhibitions allow you to regulate yourself and your behaviors. In some people, this may come across as shyness or refusal to do certain things. 

Drugs and alcohol lower inhibitions, causing you to act in ways you wouldn’t normally. This comes with many risks.

Lowered Inhibitions and the Brain

Drugs can thwart the ability to make good decisions because they affect a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. Drugs may cause a person not to fully think about the decision they make, causing a person to seek immediate gratification. 

Lowered inhibitions are dangerous for anyone who consumes drugs or alcohol in excess. They are a continual problem for people who have a substance use disorder. Addiction is linked to previous bad decision-making and impaired judgement. 

A January 2017 article from Psychology Today reports that the brain needs a balance between inhibitions and excitability. Two neurotransmitters are responsible for this balance:

 

  • Glutamate: Associated with decreased inhibitions, this neurotransmitter increases excitability and can even cause seizures if it is out of control.
  • Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA): This neurotransmitter causes relaxation, and it is important in maintaining certain inhibitions. 

 

Brain scans in people who misuse cocaine on a regular basis show that they can eventually damage their ability to make good decisions and their memory. Alcohol can also affect the brain of people who deal with alcohol use disorder, are binge drinkers, or occasional heavy drinkers. 

Decreased Inhibitions During Adolescence

Anyone can experience diminished inhibitions at any age, but teens who experiment with or misuse drugs or alcohol are at increased risk of substantial damage to the frontal cortex because their brains are still developing. 

A 2009 case study from Clinical EEG and Neuroscience found that teens who use marijuana tend to have more gray matter and a larger prefrontal or posterior cortex. This disrupts the brain’s development and means marijuana’s harmful effects can be felt for years after use. 

A 2018 study published by Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research confirms that adolescents who use marijuana from a young age may not perform as well on verbal tasks or have as good a memory as peers who do not use marijuana as teenagers. 

Understanding the Effects of Lowered Inhibitions: Statistics and Data

Lowered inhibitions are also associated with certain social problems, such as: 

  • Transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Decreased inhibitions are known to lead to risky sexual behaviors that facilitate the transmission of STIs.
    A 2013 study published by AIDS and Behavior found that injection drug use puts a person at twice the risk of becoming infected with an STI than if they used drugs that do not involve needles. Even so, users of crack cocaine were at a high risk of contracting an STI no matter how they take the drug.
  • Impaired driving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that in 2016, 28 percent of all car accident deaths involved impaired drivers. About 1 million impaired drivers were arrested in 2016 because they used alcohol or other substances.
    People who use marijuana are 25 percent more likely to be involved in a car accident than people who do not use the drug.
  • Other types of accidents. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says alcohol, marijuana, opioids, club drugs like GHB or MDMA, and dissociative substances like ketamine all cause problems with motor skills and/or coordination. This may cause a person to trip or fall because they cannot properly walk while under the influence of these substances.
  • Violence and/or aggression. NIDA reports that steroids and hallucinogens like PCP are known to increase aggression in users. Alcohol increases aggression in people who are antisocial and already exhibit aggression. Alcohol is often involved in domestic violence between partners and in cases of child abuse and neglect. 
  • Sexual assault. Up to 50 percent of sexual assault cases involve excessive alcoholic consumption. About 80 percent of the time, the victim and perpetrator already know each other. However, strangers are known to assault victims as well.
  • Death. Lowered inhibitions increase the risk of death due to alcohol or drug use. This increased risk is often due to accidents. It is possible to overdose on drugs or get alcohol poisoning from drinking too much. Though not all cases of overdose and alcohol poisoning end in death, they can be fatal if they are not treated in time.

Sources

(January 2009) The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain Development. Clinical EEG and Neuroscience. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2827693/

(June 2010) Your Brain on Alcohol. Psychology Today. from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/you-illuminated/201006/your-brain-alcohol

(January 2018) Alcohol is a Dangerous Drug. Verywell Mind. from https://www.verywellmind.com/alcohol-is-a-dangerous-drug-66528

(April 2012) Commonly Abused Drugs. National Institute on Drug Abuse. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/cadchart.pdf

(August 2018) How Drugs Hijack Decision-Making in the Brain. Psych Central. from https://psychcentral.com/news/2012/11/27/how-drugs-hijack-decision-making-in-the-brain/48162.html

(July 2019) Cocaine Abuse Affects Decision-Making and Memory. Verywell Health. from https://www.verywellmind.com/cocaine-abuse-affects-decision-making-66702

(March 2013) Non-injection and Injection Drug Use and STI/HIV Risk in the United States: The Degree to which Sexual Risk Behaviors versus Sex with an STI-Infected Partner Account for Infection Transmission among Drug Users. AIDS and Behavior. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3923515/

(July 2014) Association between alcohol use and sexually transmitted infection incidence among Kenyan women engaged in transactional sex. AIDS and Behavior. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4007393/

(June 2016) Alcohol and Violence. Verywell Mind. from https://www.verywellmind.com/alcohol-and-violence-research-62654

(January 2017) Excitation and Inhibition: The Yin and Yang of the Brain. Psychology Today. from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/consciousness-self-organization-and-neuroscience/201701/excitation-and-inhibition-the-yin-and

(March 2019) Impaired Driving: Get the Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. from https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/impaired_driving/impaired-drv_factsheet.html

(March 2018) Verbal Memory Performance and Reduced Cortical Thickness of Brain Regions Along the Uncinate Fasciculus in Young Adult Cannabis Users. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5870060/

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