The Link Between Alcohol and Aggression

Close-Up Of Hands Holding Alcoholic Drinks

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The stereotype of the "angry drunk" may be rooted in fact, at least for some people in whom alcohol and anger are associated. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, the use of alcohol is more closely associated with aggressive behavior than any other type of psychotropic substance. But drinking alcohol can elicit different behaviors in different people.

"Alcohol is involved in half of all murders, rapes, and assaults," said Robert O. Pihl, professor of psychology and psychiatry at McGill University. "But the dynamics of this association are complicated, which is why any research that focuses on explaining this relationship is important for society in general."

Understanding Anger and Aggression 

Anger is an intense emotion you feel when something has gone wrong or someone has wronged you. Aggression refers to a range of behaviors that can result in both physical and psychological harm to yourself, others, or objects in the environment.

"Trait anger" refers to a person's general tendency to experience chronic anger over time. An angry person tends to seek out stimuli that activate feelings of anger. This may explain why they are angry more often and act more aggressively than someone who does not have this personality trait.

How Alcohol Affects Aggression

Alcohol can provoke different emotional responses for different people. For example, it can make some people sad and others angry. If you have a natural tendency to be angry, drinking alcohol may cause you to become aggressive.

There are a number of cognitive, neurobiological, and social factors that can influence how alcohol affects aggression.

The effect of alcohol may also be due to the effect of neuroinflammation, a situation made worse because of the effect of heavy alcohol consumption on the gut/microbiome and nutrition. For example, research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids are deficient in people with alcoholism and this is associated with violence.

Risk Factors

According to one study, the following risk factors may increase the risk of alcohol-related aggression:

  • Being male
  • Binge drinking
  • Having high levels of trait anger
  • Having a sensation-seeking personality
  • Having underlying irritability
  • Having friends or relatives who exhibit aggression under the influence of alcohol
  • Lacking empathy

Drinking cocktails that include energy drinks should be considered a possible factor for aggressive behavior as well. Researchers surveyed 175 young adults who mixed alcohol with caffeinated energy drinks about their verbal and physical aggression in bar conflicts. Results showed enough escalation in people consuming these drinks to label the beverages a "potential risk" to increased hostility.

Disinhibition

Among the many studied physiological and behavioral effects of alcohol is disinhibition, or reduced control over impulses or urges after intoxication. Disinhibition can make you unable to suppress or change an act of aggression that is not appropriate for the situation you're in.

"If individuals tend to express their anger outwardly," said Amos Zeichner, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Georgia, "alcohol will 'turn up the volume,' so that such a person will express anger more frequently and more intensely. A heightened response will most likely occur when the provocation against the drinker is a strong one, and will less likely occur when the individual is experiencing a low provocation and is sober."

Impulsivity

One study found that chronic alcohol use decreases the function in the prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in impulse control. Researchers have also linked impulsive alcohol-related behavior to genetic involvement, with the presence of the serotonin 2B receptor gene (HTR2B) playing a role in impulsive and aggressive behaviors while under the influence of alcohol.

A lack of impulse control can make a person unable to resist the sudden, forceful urge to fly into a rage or act aggressively.  

Cognitive Function

Alcohol impairs cognitive function, which means it is more difficult to problem-solve, control anger, and make good decisions when drinking. Decreased cognitive function also means it's more likely for you to misread a situation and overreact. For example, if you're intoxicated, you might perceive someone bumping into you by accident as a provocation and respond aggressively.

Low Regard for Consequences

People who tend to ignore the future consequences of their behavior, or score low on the Consideration of Future Consequences (CFC) scale, have been found to display more aggression. This is heightened when consuming alcohol, according to a 2012 study.

Alcohol and Domestic Violence

Intimate partner violence is of great concern when it comes to alcohol and anger. Violence can occur in marriages, long-term partnerships, and dating relationships.

In a 2017 report, researchers shared their findings of the relationship between alcohol and dating violence. The study included 67 undergraduate men who were currently dating someone.

The study concluded that alcohol increased the odds of physical aggression in those men who had high trait anger and poor anger management skills. It also noted that sexual aggression was higher with alcohol, even in men with low trait anger and reasonable anger management skills.

Some of the biological factors that contribute to alcoholism may also play a role in increasing the risk of intimate partner violence. Such factors including head injury, neurochemistry, physiological reactivity, metabolism, and genetics.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


A Word From Verywell

If you or someone you love is battling aggression and alcohol misuse, help is available. Consult with a mental health professional and/or an addiction specialist who can provide resources and recommendations for treatment options.

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