Mental and Emotional Effects of Alcoholism

We’ve all seen the stumbling drunk character mumbling incoherently in movies and on TV, but it’s another thing entirely when the alcoholic is someone you know and care about. It may even be you. The classic depiction of drunkards has more than just a little basis in fact. Alcoholism changes the brain to such an extent that thinking processes are clouded, emotions are all out of whack, and what seems right and normal to non-drinking individuals is totally alien to the alcoholic.
But it’s not just the alcoholic who’s affected. Everyone around the drinker suffers to some extent as a result of that person’s addiction to alcohol. Here are some of the specific mental and emotional effects that are the direct result of alcoholism.

Loss of Memory

The cumulative effects of chronic alcoholism result in brain cells that are destroyed, synapses broken, circuits that no longer fire or do so in wrong sequences. A person who drinks heavily over a long period of time may suffer brain deficits that persist long after he or she achieves sobriety. Heavy drinking may have extensive and far-reaching results, ranging from simple memory slips to permanently debilitating conditions that require long-term custodial care.

After heavy drinking – too much in too short a time – a person can experience blackouts, or periods where they can’t remember what they did, said, or thought while they were drinking. Studies of male and female alcoholics also showed significant brain shrinkage, which caused the memory loss as well as learning problems. Other more recent studies have shown that women’s brains may be even more vulnerable to alcohol-induced damage than men’s.

Other studies have shown that alcoholics have deficits in the frontal lobe deficits, which are responsible for many functions associated with memory and learning, and also the cerebellum, which controls coordination and movement.

Difficulty with Learning

Along with memory loss, other cognitive impairment common in alcoholics is difficulty learning. Serious and persistent changes to the brain may be the direct result of alcoholic intake or may indirectly result from poor overall health or severe liver disease. Thiamine deficiency, a nutrient essential to all tissues, including the brain, is common in alcoholics (up to 80 percent have thiamine deficiency). It is caused by poor nutrition.

Many alcoholics with thiamine deficiency develop serious brain disorders, consisting of two separate syndromes. Wernicke syndrome is a short-lived and severe encephalopathy. Its symptoms include mental confusion, eye nerve paralysis, and difficulty with muscle coordination. Up to 90 percent of those with Wernicke syndrome also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, a chronic and debilitating condition characterized by persistent memory and learning problems.

Poor Judgment and Loss of Inhibition

Excessive alcohol in the brain’s cerebral cortex affects thought processes, leading to the individual having problems with poor judgment. The more alcohol a person consumes, the more they lose their inhibitions. This may result in them becoming overly talkative and/or more confident.

Emotional Effects of Alcoholism

When someone who is an alcoholic is intoxicated, they may resort to crying jags, bouts of hysteria, become angry, physically or verbally abusive. In short, their moods are wildly erratic and unpredictable.

Attempts at abstinence, even for short periods, result in depression and anxiety – often leading the alcoholic to quickly return to drinking. Alcohol blunts or blocks out emotional pain and allows the drinker to tolerate situations he or she may not want to or feels unable to deal with.

In personal relationships, especially in the home, alcoholism causes serious disruption, even irreparable damage. The alcoholic is often regarded by other family members as untrustworthy, unreliable, unworthy of respect. Normal, everyday activities and conversation are impossible around the alcoholic, since a word or a look may be perceived by the drinker as a provocation. Family members tiptoe around the house, afraid to speak, fearful of what may happen next. Violent arguments and physical abuse may occur, further fracturing the family dynamic.

Children of alcoholics often have low self-esteem, suffer from depression, anxiety, and stress, and tend to do worse academically than their peers. In addition to potentially inherited risks for later alcoholism, children of alcoholics, according to studies, may have lifelong coping abilities. As adults, they are at higher risk for divorce and psychiatric symptoms.

Improvement after Abstinence

The good news is that most alcoholics show at least some improvement in brain structure and cognitive functioning within a year of abstinence. Clinicians use a variety of treatment methods to help alcoholics stop drinking and recover from alcohol-induced brain damage. Of course, such treatment must be tailored to the individual. Brain-imaging techniques help clinicians monitor both the course of treatment and its success. Imaging reveals biochemical, structural, and functional changes in patients over time. There are also new medications in place and being developed to help prevent the harmful effects of alcohol and promote the growth of new brain cells to replace those that have been damaged by alcohol.

With effective treatment, follow-up, and a dedication to remaining sober, many alcoholics can go on to live productive and fulfilling lives. Some end-stage alcoholics, however, may not be so fortunate, having lost too much in terms of physical, mental, and emotional deterioration. Still, treatment may offer some amelioration, although it requires going through withdrawal, detoxification, psychological rehabilitation and conditioning to living a healthier lifestyle. This must be coupled with a firm commitment to living sober.

Addiction recovery experts say that the sooner an alcoholic gets treatment, the quicker he or she can be on the road to recovery. The bottom line is that it is never too late to get treatment. Making improvements in the alcoholic’s quality of life – and that of those around him or her – is a goal worth pursuing.