Understanding and managing alcoholic behaviour

Find out how alcohol affects a person’s behaviour and how you can manage its impact.

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Alcoholism can cause a person to behave in a way that's erratic, dangerous and damaging to both themselves and those around them. These behaviours can be challenging for family members and friends, often leaving them angry, upset and worried.

This piece looks at why alcohol affects our behaviour, how our behaviour might change, and what you can do if you’re trying to deal with an alcoholic’s behaviour.

How does drinking alcohol affect your behaviour?

Alcohol doesn’t just affect us physically; it also impacts on our thoughts and behaviours because it alters the chemicals in our brain. It can:

  • Reduce inhibitions and impulse control, leading to reckless or dangerous behaviour
  • Reduce levels of motivation, leading to issues at work and problems fulfilling daily responsibilities
  • Reduce decision making and problem solving abilities, causing someone to make poor choices when it comes to how to act and respond in certain situations
  • Cause or worsen mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, which can impact behaviour
  • Result in someone building a tolerance to alcohol, meaning they need to drink more and more in order to feel ‘drunk’

Why can drinking alcohol make you angry?

In addition, there's a clear link between anger and alcohol. Drinking can cause some people to get angry more easily, resulting in aggressive outbursts, verbal abuse and even violence. People might feel as though their temper becomes out of control when they’ve had a drink, which can turn into a serious problem for them and those around them.

Some people are more likely to have anger issues when they’ve had a drink. These include people who:

  • Binge drink
  • Drink alcohol mixed with energy drinks
  • Are more prone to anger issues when they’re sober
  • Have friends and family members who are ‘angry drunks’

Men are also more likely than women to get angry when drinking.

Worried about your behaviour? Try cutting back

If someone has raised concerns over your drinking habits and behaviours, or if you’ve started to worry that alcohol might be a problem for you, it might be time to make some changes. 

You can find tips on how to cut back on alcohol here.

Common traits of an alcoholic

If you’re close to someone with alcoholism, you may have seen or had to deal with them behaving in the following ways:

  • Drinking in secret
  • Going missing or spending long periods of time away, which aren’t accounted for
  • Neglecting responsibilities, such as missing work and forgetting childcare duties
  • Neglecting their personal appearance and hygiene
  • Engaging in behaviours that are irresponsible, unsafe or illegal
  • Finding excuses to drink, which can range from being stressed to wanting to celebrate
  • Acting defensively when their alcohol consumption is brought up in conversation
  • Starting arguments and blaming others
  • Social isolation and withdrawing from friends and family – this might be so they can drink without being questioned, or so they can hide the physical signs of their drinking (including smelling of alcohol)

These are all symptoms of alcoholism and might be a sign that your loved one is drinking too much alcohol.

Coping with alcoholic behaviour

Dealing with an alcoholic’s behaviour can be draining. That’s why it’s so important that you take steps to address this, so you’re able to regain control of your own life and wellbeing.

Talk to the person about their alcoholism and behaviour

As a first step, it might be useful to have an open and honest conversation with your loved one about their alcoholic behaviours and how they’re affecting you and others around you.

If you do decide to speak to the person about their drinking, make sure you don’t have this conversation when they’re drunk. Instead, approach them when they’re sober as this is when they’re more likely to be receptive and see the need for change.

While the person’s behaviours may be frustrating, it’s important that you try not to be confrontational or angry. Instead, calmly explain to them the effect that their drunken behaviours are having on you and anyone else involved. Reinforce that you're genuinely concerned about them and let them know that you’re ready to support them in recovery. If the person becomes angry, walk away and have the discussion another time.

Find out more about the dos and don’ts of dealing with an alcoholic partner.

Set clear boundaries

Setting boundaries can help you take back some control over your own life. Start by making a list of the alcoholic’s behaviours that you find unacceptable. These might include things like losing their temper, drinking around your children, driving while intoxicated, or going missing for hours.

Then think about what the consequences will be if they cross these boundaries. This could include ending conversations with the person (or hanging up the phone) immediately, or taking your children elsewhere if they’re drinking. There may even be times when you need support from the emergency services if certain boundaries aren’t maintained.

Make sure that you communicate these boundaries and the consequences for breaking them to the alcoholic – and stick to them.

Setting boundaries can seem frightening; you might worry about whether it will cause the addicted person to ‘punish’ you, withhold their love, or decline further into their addiction. However, it’s important to persist and be consistent with these boundaries. This will help to protect your own mental health, wellbeing and self-esteem in the long run.

Look after your own health and wellbeing

By investing some time in yourself, you can learn to place value on yourself once again and see that you are more than the friend, family member or spouse of an alcoholic.

You could resume any previously abandoned projects or hobbies, try out some self-care techniques for better mental health, or reconnect with friends and family. This can help you to grow in confidence, strengthen your sense of self-worth and recognise that you can enjoy and improve your own life.

If your focus wavers and shifts towards the addicted person, bring it back to yourself. You're important and deserve this attention. You don’t have to be defined by someone else’s addiction.

Go to support groups and seek professional support

Family support programmes such as Families Anonymous and Al Anon can give you the opportunity to meet with other people dealing with a loved one who has an addiction. You have a chance to tell your story, explore your fears, and work through troubles and rough patches, all alongside other people who are going through the same thing.

One-to-one therapy and online therapy may also be beneficial ways to help you recover and rebuild yourself after dealing with the repercussions of an alcoholic and their behaviour.

Treatment for alcohol addiction

The most important step that an alcoholic can take is to get professional support for their alcohol abuse. At Priory, our evidence-based addiction treatment programmes can help your loved one to get back on track. We offer a medically assisted alcohol detox, helping them to manage any withdrawal symptoms, followed by a comprehensive therapeutic programme. This will give your loved one the opportunity to address the underlying causes and triggers for their addiction, and learn strategies to help them stop drinking and fully embrace an alcohol-free life.

Page clinically reviewed by Dee Johnson (Mbacp, MNCS), Addiction Therapist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford.

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