The Link Between Alcohol and Aggression


Published On: November 10, 2023

In 2019, a study found that 54% of adults reported drinking alcohol in the past week (1). Especially in the UK, drinking is seen as a social activity and is a part of the culture of going out.

However, individuals who drink large quantities of alcohol regularly can quickly become addicted if their condition is left long enough.

Alcohol is a highly addictive substance, responsible for thousands of deaths every year, as well as a multitude of other medical and psychological factors that should be treated as soon as possible.

Because of this, developing an alcohol use disorder can happen very quickly, with the effects of alcohol making it extremely addictive, especially if the individual holds a disregard for the quantity of alcohol they are consuming and consumes it regularly.

There are many reasons why someone may develop an alcohol addiction, also known as a substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder, and some of these are listed below.

Men and women aged 55 to 64 have the highest proportions of drinking over 14 units a week (2), something which could rapidly lead to an addiction if not picked up on or acknowledged.

Risk Factors and Causes

A bar with a queue of people

Addiction and alcohol use disorders are non-discriminatory diseases, meaning that they affect individuals from all walks of life, backgrounds, and cultures. This applies to the effects of alcohol, too.

However, some factors can increase the likelihood of an individual developing an addiction or alcohol use disorder.

Although these may not apply in all individuals’ cases, recognising some of these factors may be essential in the future of the individual’s rehabilitation.

The most common of these factors are listed below:

  • Generally drinking large quantities of alcohol – any individual who regularly consumes large quantities of alcohol is more likely to develop an addiction in the long term, especially when combined with any other factors
  • Co-occurring mental health issues – if the individual has an existing mental health condition or has developed mental health issues as a result of heavy and regular drinking, then they may be more likely to develop an addiction. This is known as a dual diagnosis
  • Drinking as a coping mechanism – when some individuals are faced with particularly stressful incidents or events within their lives, either at home, at work, or within their relationships, then they may begin to consume alcohol as a way to manage this. This can lead to drinking regularly and a higher risk of developing an addiction

Alcohol and Aggression

Two glasses of whisky being poured

Alcohol is a unique drug for many reasons. When an individual is addicted to alcohol, it can begin to make changes in the brain, both in the short term and in the long term.

Because of this, the effects of alcohol and how individuals react will vary massively.

Some individuals report beginning to feel very tired or sluggish, some begin to lose motor skills and may struggle to navigate their surroundings, and some may be affected behaviourally.

One of the most common and reported-on behavioural effects concerns aggression and the extent to which an individual who is under the influence of alcohol may exhibit these behaviours.

The relationship between alcohol and aggression is not shown in every individual but can be picked up on quickly.

Whether this aggression is directed at another individual, the person themselves, or the environment in which they are, it can be very dangerous and unpredictable when an individual is intoxicated.

How Alcohol Contributes to Aggression

alcholism

Individuals under the influence of alcohol can display different levels of aggression and many different things.

This may make some people a risk factor to themselves and those around them if they are heavily intoxicated, depending on the effect of alcohol on the specific individual in specific circumstances.

Some individuals may display verbal aggression, whereas others may be more physical or confrontational.

However, there are several reasons why aggression is linked to alcohol and the effects of alcohol that may increase this, especially due to the complex processing of the brain and how this can influence someone’s perception of the world around them and how they are interacting within it.

The following paragraphs outline the key areas of processing in the brain which may affect the levels of aggression that the individual shows, as well as how these effects can be risk factors for individuals involved.

Aggression in these instances is not violent but may lead to this if not treated therapeutically or if left unnoticed or unconfronted.

1. Risk Factors

When an individual is under the influence of alcohol, they are putting themselves at risk, as well as causing additional risks to those around them.

These are known as risk factors and refer to a broad range of effects that can happen as a result of someone becoming aggressive when intoxicated.

Generally, the more alcohol an individual consumes, the greater the risk factors are.

This can include physical harm to the body, either from alcohol affecting internal bodily processes or as an external result of their behaviour.

In addition, these risk factors can also include the mental health issues that an individual may face as a result of heavy drinking.

This can cause effects such as confusion, paranoia, anxiety, or depression – all of which can manifest into greater issues if the individual is unaware of how alcohol may be affecting them.

All of these risk factors can be both short and long-term issues, affecting how the individual may go about their daily lives and changing their quality of life in general (3).

2. Disinhibition

Disinhibition refers to the individual’s lack of ability to stop themselves from taking part in behaviours or actions that they know they should not.

While we are conscious and sober, our brains can make decisions on what behaviours are suitable or appropriate at the time. When we are drunk, this skill rapidly decreases, meaning that we are more likely to take part in activities that we know we probably should not (4).

This can impact different individuals in several ways.

In some ways, it may seem like a positive. For example, having disinhibition within conversation may be a useful factor for some individuals, as they may be able to appear more confident or say things that they would otherwise be too worried to ask.

However, this can quickly turn into an inability to speak, as well as the risk of saying things that the individual did not mean to say, things that could hurt others or cause confrontation.

In addition, individuals under the influence of alcohol may be more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour, binge eating, aggression, or violent crimes.

3. Impulsivity

Person looking sad

Similar to disinhibition, impulsivity works almost the opposite. Where disinhibition is trying to stop something you know you should not do, impulsivity is doing something as soon as it appears in your head, with little thought.

The ability to suppress our impulses is rapidly decreased as a result of drinking alcohol, leading to an increase in foolish or risky behaviour, which can cause harm to both the individual and those around them (5).

While intoxicated, individuals may impulsively choose to take part in risky behaviour such as involvement in crime, physical aggression and violent behaviour – both of which have serious consequences.

When it comes to aggression and violence, a lack of impulse control can make someone react quickly and severely to a seemingly small stimulus, increasing the likelihood of this behaviour after heavy or binge drinking.

This is especially true with physical aggression and the violence that this may lead to.

4. Cognitive Function

Cognitive functioning refers to a complex human process – thinking.

While sober, individuals can think clearly, assessing the positives and negatives of a specific action or situation before making a logical or appropriate response.

When intoxicated, however, this ability to ‘think clearly‘ is impaired, meaning that thinking through different scenarios and events can become increasingly difficult.

In combination with the two areas affected above, this impairment can make serious changes in how someone behaves and reacts to different stimuli.

As mentioned previously, this may make them more prone to aggressive or violent behaviour. This is because they may react negatively to something on impulse but be unable to think past this any further, leading to a sudden and unexpected reaction which may cause harm to multiple individuals.

5. Low Regard for Consequences

As a final way in which alcohol can contribute to aggression, this article must cover how alcohol can change an individual’s perception.

When heavily intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol, the individual may have no or very little regard for the long-term of their behaviour.

This can lead to poor short-term decision-making that has negative long-term consequences – something which an individual may not think about before engaging in that behaviour, leading to additional problems in the future.

Aggressive behaviour falls under this category, as an individual may react impulsively or disinhibitory but not consider the future repercussions of their actions, leading to a greater issue in the future – most often warnings, fines, or court action as a result of aggressive behaviour.

Alcohol and Violence

Alcohol addiction

Alcohol-related violence is a factor of heavy drinking that has long been researched.

Though there is a strong correlation between the two, the exact reasons are still very much up for debate, and the specifics of the interaction between alcohol and violence is still something to be continued to be researched in the future (6).

Alcohol has been known to increase violent incidents, i.e., in a pub or a bar, outside of popular nightclubs etc., though the reasons for this are not altogether clear. There are many forms of violence, not all of which are displayed upon consumption of alcohol.

Though it is generally thought to be a combination of the factors mentioned above, such as disinhibition, impulsivity, lack of cognitive functioning, and lack of regard for consequences, the actual impact of alcohol on the brain is still being studied to this day.

Alcohol-related violence is an ongoing field of research within the addiction community.

If you or someone you know is known to act violently when under the influence of alcohol, then help must be sought as soon as possible.

Not only does this decrease the time spent in rehabilitation, but it can also help to prevent the individual from behaving in this way again, causing further harm to themselves and those around them.

Alcohol and Domestic Violence

alcoholic spouse

Alcohol is a common factor in incidents of domestic violence and violence against women, and although most women hold the men (not their alcohol consumption) responsible for these incidents, it is still one of the strongest contributing factors (7).

When sporting events such as popular football games or tournaments are running, the number of reports of domestic violence and violence against women increases (8).

This is because individuals watching these events at home on TV and drinking heavily have nowhere else to direct their frustrations at the game.

If the individual were outside or watching the game in a bar or restaurant, this outcome might be very different. However, this is often not the case with some sporting events, leading to greater violence at home and a greater risk to the partners of those who consume large quantities of alcohol.

Treatment for SUD

Two women hugging

Luckily, there are many ways in which an individual with a SUD can be treated through rehabilitation.

In general, individuals follow the three stages of rehab: detoxification, rehabilitation/therapy, and aftercare.

Detoxification helps the individual to remove the harmful toxins and chemicals in the body that have built up as a result of long-term addiction, either to alcohol or other substances. This is an essential stage before moving on with any future stages of rehabilitation.

The main portion of rehabilitation, consisting of the key therapies and treatments that an individual will need to make a full recovery, is the second stage of rehab.

Here, individuals will take part in specialised treatment programmes for their individual needs, either in a one-to-one setting, part of a group, or both.

The final stage of rehab is aftercare – the rehabilitation that takes place after the main treatments that make up the bulk of care.

This can include the individual’s further learning, regular check-ups and meetings, as well as any other forms of rehab that may be suitable and applicable to an individual’s specific case.

Get Help for Alcoholism Today

Talking therapy

When it comes to rehabilitation, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. This is because addiction affects every individual differently, and therefore will be needed to be treated differently.

At Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we understand this, talking one-on-one with every single one of our clients to help them find the most appropriate and suitable form of care.

After one initial telephone assessment, our team will be able to make the best suggestions for you or someone you love and the future of rehabilitation.

To find out how Rehab 4 Alcoholism can help you, contact us on our addiction support helpline at 0800 111 4108 today.

References

[1] House of Commons Library, Alcohol Statistics: England, N. Policarpo Zambon, 28 July 2021: https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7626/CBP-7626.pdf

[2] NHS Digital, Statistics on Alcohol, England 2020, 4 February 2020: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-alcohol/2020#data-sets

[3] Mukamal, K.J. and Rimm, E.B., 2008. Alcohol consumption: risks and benefits. Current atherosclerosis reports, 10(6), pp.536-543.

[4] Källmén, H. and Gustafson, R., 1998. Alcohol and disinhibition. European Addiction Research, 4(4), pp.150-162.

[5] Potenza, M.N. and De Wit, H., 2010. Control yourself: alcohol and impulsivity. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 34(8), pp.1303-1305.

[6] Fagan, J., 1993. Interactions among drugs, alcohol, and violence. Health Affairs, 12(4), pp.65-79.

[7] Galvani, S., 2006. Alcohol and domestic violence: Women’s views. Violence against women, 12(7), pp.641-662.

[8] Forsdike, K., O’Sullivan, G. and Hooker, L., 2022. Major sports events and domestic violence: a systematic review. Health & Social Care in the Community.

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