When drinking causes more than just a hangover


For some people, spending the festive season without drinking can have its advantages

IT’S A DIM but mortifying memory: an extended family – grandparents, grown-up kids and their spouses, grandchildren – are spending the Christmas break together. One woman has been drinking wine for hours. When her baby starts to cry, a sister-in-law who is sober gets up to see to the child. “You think you’re such a perfect mother,” snarls the drinker. “F*** you.”

In such a messy emotional scene, what exactly is going on? One of the effects of alcohol is that it lowers inhibitions around other people. That means, under its influence, you might do and say things that would make you cringe if you were sober.

People may shrug off drunken rudeness and oafish behaviour with the excuse, “Oh, that was just the drink talking”, but the ancient Romans had a saying, in vino veritas, in wine there is the truth.

Does that mean the alcohol simply reveals the true you? Or does it alter you, so that your intoxicated self seems a stranger to those who know your authentic, sober self?

Some economists have studied the tongue-loosening effects of social drinking, suggesting that it might actually help to build trust between people. This is in contrast to the line taken by therapists, who tend to suggest it’s never a good idea to drink.

In any case, it turns out that even the term “social drinking” is a bit iffy. If you consider social drinking to be a drink in the pub with friends before moving on to dinner, a glass or two of wine and an after-dinner liqueur, think again, many experts will describe this as binge-drinking.

One professional who has given some thought to the notion of in vino veritas is Rolande Anderson, an alcohol counsellor and author of Living with a Problem Drinker, Your Survival Guide. He is national alcohol project director for the Irish College of General Practitioners.

Anderson dismisses in vino veritasas a myth. Instead, the drinker’s perceptions of reality are distorted by alcohol. Any ravings are half-truths at most. Certainly, it’s a rare person who, the morning after the night before, remembers making crude comments and says, “Well, I’m glad I cleared the air.”

The fact is, social drinking changes our brain chemistry. How that affects particular individuals depends on the type of person they are when sober, the amount they drink and how rapidly, and their mood.

“If you’re in a bad mood, don’t drink alcohol,” says Shane Kelly, a therapist and professional services manager for the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. “It will exacerbate that mood.”

Likewise, drinking to bolster your courage can backfire because the alcohol may intensify your anxiety rather than relieve it.

There is no question, drink makes us clumsier around other people. It makes us less likely to notice the fact that we’re embarrassing others, for example, or more likely to fly off the handle. “When you drink, it lowers inhibitions and it changes your judgment,” says Kelly.

All sorts of thoughts about other people – some kind, some nasty – run through our minds all day long. We keep most of them to ourselves.

Fast-forward to a social gathering and, with a few drinks sloshing about your brain, it might seem an ideal time to dish out a few home truths to some unfortunate target: a loved one, a colleague, even (gulp) your boss.

If your mother has a habit of making snide remarks, you may ordinarily let her digs go. That’s just her way and you know she loves you underneath.

But after downing a few GTs on Christmas Day, you might wipe the smirk off her face with a few cutting remarks of your own.

“Without alcohol, you can see possible outcomes and think longer term,” says Kelly. “Things tend to narrow with alcohol. You’re stuck in the moment. The emotions you feel are amplified.”

This happens because alcohol affects the control centres of the brain, says Fiona Ryan, director of the charity Alcohol Action Ireland.

“Alcohol is not an ordinary product. It’s a psycho-active drug,” she says. This means it affects the mind.

Our bodies can generally break down about one standard drink an hour, such as a pub measure of spirits or about 100ml of wine.

If you drink more rapidly than this – and lots of us do – alcohol starts to flood the brain. There it interferes with the neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that transmit nerve impulses between brain cells.

The result? Social inhibition takes a dive when alcohol hits your cerebral cortex, the part of your brain that processes thoughts. Your judgment becomes skewed and your senses blunted. At the same time, alcohol may mess with the brain’s limbic system, where it blurs memory but revs up emotions; the cerebellum, where it affects muscle co-ordination; the hypothalamus, where it raises sexual desire but lowers performance; and the medulla, where it makes you sleepy.

“The more you drink, the more you affect your brain cells,” says Kelly. “Most people think if they have a drink, they’ll relax and calm down. Maybe they will if they have only one, but most people drink more than they realise, and faster.

“You need to be confident you know your own limit and can stay within it when drinking. If you can do that, you are not going to do things that will make you feel embarrassed or will embarrass someone else.”

The Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has an online directory of therapists in every county at IACP.ie.

Living with a Problem Drinker, Your Survival Guideby Rolande Anderson (£7.99) is published by Sheldon Press, sheldonpress.co.uk