Psychological Effects of Alcoholism

Estimated reading time: 37 minute(s)

Approximately one-third of the world’s population meets the criteria for alcohol addiction at some point in their lives. The problem is also extremely common in the United States, where up to 85% of the citizens have reported drinking alcohol in their life and up to 25% have admitted to binge drinking. The irony is that most of these people are aware of the risks that excessive or long-term alcohol use can bring to their physical health. However, many remain unclear about the beverage’s potential to cause psychological effects. Raising awareness about the potential psychological and behavioral effects of alcohol is a great way to understand the consequences of drinking and boost motivation to quit it for good.

What Causes the Psychological Effects of Alcoholism?

Problem drinking can have multiple causes, with physiological, genetic, social, and psychological factors playing crucial roles. Not every person is equally affected by each of these causes. For instance, some people may be promoted to abuse alcohol due to certain psychological traits like poor self-esteem and impulsiveness while others may turn to abusing it to manage or self-medicate for the underlying emotional issues. Environmental or social factors, like easy access to alcohol or peer pressure, also play an essential role in the development of alcohol use disorders. Lastly, low socioeconomic status and a past history of sexual or physical abuse also significantly raise the odds of developing alcohol dependence.

Genetics has been a primary area of focus when it comes to investigating the causes of alcohol. While experts strongly believe genetics to be a triggering factor for alcohol addiction, it does not mean that children with a family history of alcoholism will automatically acquire similar issues when they grow up. Similarly, the absence of a family history does not serve as a protective factor for anyone from developing alcohol addiction. Once people start drinking excessively, the problem starts perpetuating itself, leading to many physiological changes that make drinking the only way to prevent discomfort.

Short-Term Psychological Effects of Alcohol

While alcohol may affect different people in different ways, the following are some problems they may face in the short run:

Exacerbation of emotions

Many people turn to alcohol to drown their sorrows and relieve their ongoing stress. While this remedy may prove effective for the time being, the effects may wear off within a few hours, making such people feel worse than before.

Decreased inhibitions

Alcohol directly targets the brain and messes with its neurochemical setup to lower inhibition in users, especially those drinking heavily. [1] This effect may make certain people engage in risky activities, such as driving under the influence, having unprotected sex with strangers, and operating dangerous machinery, increasing the chance of damage to themselves and others. Moreover, decreased inhibitions can also make a person more violent.

Increased Anger

Alcohol often helps people release the feelings they have been building up over time. As these emotions come out, they may make a person feel more frustrated or angry, sometimes forcing them to do things they would not do under normal circumstances. [2] The regret and guilt generated by these actions can take a toll on mental health later on.

Poor Self-Esteem

Many people find it difficult to maintain their self-esteem the minute they start drinking. [3] For some, this effect is temporary and wears off once the intoxication levels are down. For others, it may persist and disturb their quality of life while undermining their achievements and relationships.

Remember that alcohol is a temporary response to a longer-term issue. Most people believe that its damaging effects are temporary and go away as soon as the intoxication wears off. However, experts have warned everyone that regular drinking can have long-term implications that may make people feel worse about themselves.

Long-Term Mental Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

People who continue to drink heavily for a long time period are automatically at an increased risk of experiencing alcohol-related complications. These complications can affect vital body organs, such as the heart, liver, and gut, and induce several mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and mood irregularities.

Research has indicated that long-term alcohol abuse can cause lasting damage to the brain, shrinking one of the key areas called the hippocampus. This risk is six times higher in people who drink four or more drinks every day, according to the latest research. Moreover, this risk is directly proportional to the amount of alcohol a person drinks and can even exist in people who drink mild to moderate.  Other important long-term mental effects of alcohol on the brain include the following:

Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome

Also known as Wet Brain, Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome is a condition triggered by long-term or excessive alcohol use.[4] This chronic abuse, together with poor dietary habits, can put a person at risk of developing thiamine or vitamin B1 deficiency. As a result, they may develop the first stage of the disease called Wernicke encephalopathy, a degenerative disorder where people find it difficult to retain new information or retrieve old memories. IF left unchecked, Wernicke encephalopathy can progress to Korsakoff syndrome, causing eye movement disturbances, mental confusion, learning, and memory issues, and poor coordination. Korsakoff psychosis is irreversible and can leave behind lifelong damage and difficulties. 

Poor Coping Skills

Many people use alcohol as a way to cope with their ongoing worries and success. This habit is ineffective in problem-solving and stops people from developing healthier coping mechanisms, such as through professional counseling. As a result, they may easily get overwhelmed whenever life gets stressful and may turn to alcohol again, reducing their quality of life.

Fragile Relationships

Many people who become dependent on alcohol often spend too much time drinking and recovering from the mental effects of alcohol. Hence, they are much more likely to engage in arguments and neglect or hurt their loved ones.

Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

Many people acquire co-occurring disorders while drinking alcohol heavily. For others, their existing mental health issues may worsen, making them feel more depressed or anxious than usual.

Suicidal Tendencies

Alcohol use remains an important risk factor for suicide and can trigger impulsive suicidal behaviors. [5] The more an individual drinks, the greater their risk of committing suicide. For most people, the risk is due to the heavily intoxicating effect of alcohol, which numbs their inhibitions and generates suicidal thoughts. Additionally, the reduced inhibitions also force these people to act on these thoughts, usually on impulse.

If you or a loved one who routinely drinks alcohol has been experiencing suicidal thoughts or showing suicidal behaviors, it is imperative to intervene at once and involve relevant organizations as soon as possible to save lives.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Addiction is one of the most common mental effects of alcohol abuse. Commonly known as alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, it describes a problematic, compulsive pattern of alcohol use that persists despite causing negative consequences to a person’s personal life, job, health, and relationships. To get a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder, an individual must fulfill at least two of the criteria mentioned below within one year:

  • Spending a considerable amount of time trying to access alcohol
  • Drinking in situations where it’s dangerous to do so, for example, during operating heavy machinery or driving
  • Experiencing strong cravings for alcohol
  • Drinking despite experiencing difficulties with relationships due to alcohol use
  • Using a higher amount of alcohol or drinking more frequently to feel the same effects as before
  • Inability to fulfill obligations at school, home, or work because of alcohol use
  • Failure to cut down on drinking
  • Continuing to drink despite acknowledging that it is causing negative physical or mental health issues
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms upon quitting
  • Avoiding activities that were once pleasurable

Managing the Psychological Effects of Alcoholism: How a Psychologist Can Help?

Psychologists are professionals trained and experienced in treating various mental health issues, including alcoholism and addiction. These experts can help an alcohol addict and their family members begin their recovery journey with high levels of motivation. The psychological assessment these experts perform involves the severity and degree of addiction and other risk factors. Based on the results, they may come up with an appropriate treatment plan to help addicts recover and get treatment in the best way possible.

Following are some ways a psychologist can help people overcome and manage their alcohol addictions successfully.

Provision of appropriate individual therapy

By relying on one or more types of psychological therapy, psychologists help people address the underlying mental and behavioral issues that led to problem drinking in the first place. Some of these therapies include cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy. They may also offer therapies like 12-step guidance and facilitation approaches to support people and help them engage in self-help programs. These therapies boost the motivation levels in people to stop drinking, help them recognize the circumstances that led them to addiction, and help them learn new coping methods to safely deal with high-risk situations. Moreover, psychological therapies also enable patients to develop strong social support systems in their local communities.

Addressing co-occurring issues

It is common for many individuals suffering from alcoholism to develop other mental health issues simultaneously, such as depressive disorder and severe anxiety. Such people require more comprehensive treatment to address all issues together, and a trained psychologist can help deliver it safely and effectively. A psychologist also plays a crucial role in coordinating services that an addict receives from different health care professionals as a part of their addiction treatment.

Provision of group and family therapy

Psychologists can also provide group, family, and couples therapy focused on repairing interpersonal relationships and other personal problems due to long-term alcohol use. They believe strong family relationships can influence drinking behaviors and intensely impact a person’s recovery journey. Psychologists help addicts and their significant others easily navigate through these complex transitions while educating them on addiction and its effects on life. Family therapy, in particular, focuses on an addict’s loved ones and helps them acknowledge the struggles of addiction and how they can support such people as they slowly move toward recovery.

Minimizing relapses

Alcohol addiction often comes with a high risk of relapses even when a person has completed a treatment course and achieved sobriety. In such circumstances, having a trusted psychologist to discuss the problems and learn from them is crucial. If these experts are unable to handle the relapses, they may make appropriate referrals to help their patients get the help they need.


How severe are the psychological effects of alcoholism?

Alcohol psychological effects can affect anyone, and the severity of these impacts is based on various factors, such as the following:

  • The frequency and quantity of consumption
  • The current health status of an individual
  • The age at which an individual begins drinking
  • The duration of drinking
  • The education level, genetic background, gender, age, and family history of alcoholism

Based on the factors above, the psychological effects of alcoholism and its ramifications can be severe for many.

Can alcohol also affect memory?

One of the mental effects of alcohol includes long- and short-term memory issues. These issues can occur even when a person has consumed a few drinks. The more alcohol an individual drinks, the worse their memory impairment can become. Alcohol consumption can also cause lapses in memory, especially when it is heavily consumed.

Can different types of alcohol have different psychological effects?

The type of alcohol does not influence the type of mental effects a person may exhibit. It may; however, determine how severe these effects are based on the concentration of alcohol a drink contains. Some drinks have higher ethanol than others which may lead to more intense and longer-lasting psychological effects.


 1 Gan G, Guevara A, Marxen M, Neumann M, Jünger E, Kobiella A, Mennigen E, Pilhatsch M, Schwarz D, Zimmermann US, Smolka MN. Alcohol-induced impairment of inhibitory control is linked to attenuated brain responses in right fronto-temporal cortex. Biol Psychiatry. 2014 Nov 1;76(9):698-707. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.12.017. Epub 2014 Jan 15. PMID: 24560581; PMCID: PMC4523220.

2 Beck A, Heinz A. Alcohol-related aggression-social and neurobiological factors. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2013 Oct;110(42):711-5. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2013.0711. Epub 2013 Oct 18. PMID: 24223671; PMCID: PMC3820993.

3 Schick MR, Nalven T, Spillane NS. The factor structure of self-esteem and its association with alcohol use in American Indian (AI) adolescents. Am J Orthopsychiatry. 2020;90(6):712-719. doi: 10.1037/ort0000504. Epub 2020 Jun 25. PMID: 32584078; PMCID: PMC8359740.

4 Covell T, Siddiqui W. Korsakoff Syndrome. [Updated 2023 Jan 30]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from:

5 Pompili M, Serafini G, Innamorati M, Dominici G, Ferracuti S, Kotzalidis GD, Serra G, Girardi P, Janiri L, Tatarelli R, Sher L, Lester D. Suicidal behavior and alcohol abuse. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010 Apr;7(4):1392-431. doi: 10.3390/ijerph7041392. Epub 2010 Mar 29. PMID: 20617037; PMCID: PMC2872355.

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