Alcohol and aggression. An image of an outline of a couple having a disagreement.

It’s well known that alcohol can change the way we feel and think while under its influence. When you first start drinking, it releases dopamine, a chemical messenger or neurotransmitter sometimes referred to as the ‘happy hormone’.

This can initially make you feel happy and even giggly during low levels of intoxication or tipsiness – although long-term or chronic drinking can build up your tolerance to this effect.

As more alcohol is consumed, the effects can change. It can act as a depressant, lower inhibitions and affect your physical and mental control.

But does alcohol cause aggression? We’ll look at the facts…

Does Alcohol Cause Aggression?

All the available evidence points to a definite link between alcohol and aggression. The latest crime statistics for England and Wales show that, for the year 2022-23, there were 384,000 recorded violent incidents where the victim believed the offender was under the influence of alcohol.

This was more than a third (38%) of all recorded violent crimes, including some of the most serious. There are also, of course, many more violent and aggressive incidents that are not officially reported. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that alcohol is associated with aggressive behaviour more closely than the use of any other psychotropic substance.3

So why does alcohol cause aggression, and why does it seem to have this effect in some people more than others?

There appear to be a number of potential reasons:

Reduced Inhibitions and Impulse Control

For some people, reduced inhibitions might simply make them more talkative and confident. This common effect of alcohol can also make people lose control of their emotions. One cliché might be a drunk person telling people they don’t know very well that they’re best friends, but it can also lead to aggression and lashing out – with strangers or those closest to you.

Impaired Cognitive Functioning

Alcohol can make it more difficult to read people and situations, leading to misunderstandings that can trigger confrontation. Combined with lowered impulse control, some people react aggressively rather than think about things calmly and logically.

Narrowed Viewpoint

Also known as ‘alcohol myopia’, this sees people under the influence of alcohol focusing on what is in front of them rather than seeing the bigger picture. Someone drunk might ‘rise to the bait’ more easily than if they were sober.

Reduced Empathy

Alcohol can make you more self-centred, preventing you from seeing things from others’ points of view. With less patience and tolerance and more concern for your concerns, this can spill into aggression.

As to why some people seem to be an ‘angry drunk’ and some do not, research suggests that there are genetic and neurobiological factors, meaning that some people are naturally disposed or at risk of alcohol-related aggression. Social learning, such as growing up around people who exhibit aggressive behaviour when drunk, can also play a part, however. It’s worth noting that no one is ‘immune’ to alcohol-related aggression, and it’s been observed that it occurs with both binge drinking and chronic or regular long-term drinking patterns.

Signs You Are An Angry Drunk

You don’t have to be an aggressive alcoholic in order to have a problem. Some people might not drink often, but when they do, they tend to lose control. For others, it might be a regular pattern of drinking aggression and/or violence.

Some signs that you might be an angry drunk could include:

  • Struggling to control your temper when drinking
  • Becoming more argumentative
  • Shouting or saying nasty/hurtful things
  • Inability to look for peaceful solutions to conflict
  • Struggling to calm down again when riled
  • Throwing things, hitting or otherwise becoming violent
  • Feeling guilty or regretting the way you acted while drunk
  • Not remembering aggressive behaviour when drunk

Does Alcohol Change Your Personality?

While there are clear links between alcohol and aggression, this is not the only effect that excessive drinking can have. Drinking alcohol can have a number of different effects on short-term behaviour, depending on the individual, the amount consumed and other factors. As already noted, it can lower inhibitions and change your perceptions and thought processes.

For some people and at some levels of drinking, this can make them happier, more chatty or outwardly confident. It can also lead to risky, erratic or unpredictable behaviour, as well as aggressive behaviour in some people. It can also cause more depressive thoughts, especially after heavy drinking.

Longer-term personality changes tend to be more gradual, but alcohol can certainly affect the way you think and behave in your day-to-day life. Alcohol is linked to a number of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and even psychosis, suicide and self-harm. Some people can also find themselves becoming more secretive and defensive about their drinking, which can lead to more aggressive behaviour even when sober.

What to Do if You Have a Spouse Who Becomes Aggressive When Drinking

A drunk and angry partner or spouse can be very difficult to deal with and can have a devastating impact on any relationship. Every situation is different, but in general, it is always best to remove yourself from the situation if possible, even if that just means going home early or going into another room. Try not to shout or argue back, but remain calm and say you will talk when the other person is sober.

If this is a recurring issue, it may be time to convince your partner that they have a problem and needs to seek help. If you feel that you or any children may be at risk of harm, it might be best to remove yourselves from the situation until they agree to seek help.

Help For Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol and anger often go together, and drink-fueled aggression can damage everyone around you. It can destroy relationships, tear families apart, affect work and school` and potentially lead to trouble with the law.

Whether you are concerned about your drinking or that of a partner, family member or other loved one, we can help. We can offer confidential help and advice, including managed interventions, if that is the best option.

We can also offer rehab if you or the person with the problem is ready to stop drinking and take back control of your life. Get in touch today and find out how we can help.