Mood Swings Common in Heavy Drinkers

Heavy drinking is a pattern of excessive alcohol consumption that increases a person’s chances of developing diagnosable problems with alcohol abuse or alcoholism. People already affected by these conditions also typically drink heavily on a regular basis. In a study published in January 2014 in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, researchers from the University of Vermont sought to determine if the “positive” and “negative” mood changes associated with heavy drinking differ between men and women. These researchers concluded that some mood changes occur in both men and women, while others tend to occur only in men.

Understanding Heavy Drinking

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism uses the term “heavy drinker” to describe people who exceed public health guidelines for moderate alcohol intake. The definition is meaningful because anyone who consistently drinks in this manner significantly increases his or her chances of developing full-blown symptoms of alcohol use disorder (a disease category that includes both life-impairing alcohol abuse and alcoholism). Heavy-drinking men consume more than four drinks on a single day, consume more than 14 drinks in a week or exceed both the daily and weekly markers for moderate intake. Heavy-drinking women consume more than three drinks in a day, consume more than seven drinks in a week or exceed both of these markers for moderate intake. A heavy drinker’s chances of qualifying for an alcohol use disorder diagnosis rise along with the number of days during which excessive intake occurs.

Positive and Negative Moods

All moods occur within the context of a person’s larger psychological/emotional life. Practically speaking, this means that any mood can have “positive” or “negative” effects in a given situation. However, some moods tend to have a long-term beneficial impact on emotional/psychological well-being when they appear frequently, while others tend to have a long-term harmful impact when they appear frequently. Moods/emotions known for their ability to promote improved well-being (and thereby qualify as generally “positive”) include joy, inspiration, love, serenity, hope, awe, curiosity, amusement and gratitude. Moods/emotions known for their ability to promote a diminished sense of well-being (and thereby qualify as generally “negative”) include hatred, anger, fear, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness and jealousy. Specific harms associated with persistently negative moods include heightened chances of developing chronic physical ailments and heightened chances of developing depression and certain other forms of mental illness.

Differing Gender Effects

In the study published in Alcohol and Alcoholism, the University of Vermont researchers used an examination of 246 heavy-drinking men and women to investigate whether the mood-related effects of excessive alcohol intake differ between the genders. Two-thirds of the study participants were men; more than 50 percent of the participants from each gender had confirmed symptoms of alcoholism. For six months, the researchers employed a telephone-based monitoring technique to assess the daily emotional state of all 246 individuals. They used the information to determine two things: if the level of alcohol intake on one day leads to mood changes on the following day, and if the mood present on one day affects the level of alcohol intake on the following day.

The researchers drew two main conclusions from their work. First, they concluded that when both male and female heavy drinkers increase their intake level on one day, they typically experience a decrease in their positive moods (specifically, happiness) on the following day. This cause-and-effect relationship is especially evident among heavy-drinking women. The researchers also concluded that when heavy-drinking men experience an increase in negative moods (specifically, anger) on one day, their level of alcohol intake typically increases on the following day. This anger-related change does not occur in heavy-drinking women.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published in Alcohol and Alcoholism undertook their project because they wanted to test the theory that men and women who are heavy drinkers use alcohol to increase their positive moods. Their findings contradict this theory and support the notion that heavy-drinking men and women actually experience a downturn in their baselines moods when they consume large amounts of alcohol. Their findings also indicate that heavy-drinking men, in particular, often increase their intake in a conscious or unconscious response to negative feelings. Still, even with this underlying motivation, heavy-drinking men do not experience positive emotional results from their increased consumption. The study’s authors believe that professionals who treat alcohol-related problems can use their findings to support useful conversations with both male and female clients/patients on the emotional consequences of heavy drinking.