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Alcohol and Impulse Control

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

February 27, 2024 (Originally Published)

March 22, 2024 (Last Updated)

Table of Contents

The abuse of alcohol is associated with an array of physical and mental health issues, and abusive patterns of alcohol consumption are also incredibly damaging for society as a whole. When alcohol consumption is not properly controlled, abuse can easily spiral into dependence and addiction.

Stress commonly triggers people to act on impulse – that is, making quick decisions without thinking through the consequences. Stress and substance abuse can have a bi-directional relationship, too: impulsive actions can lead people to drink more when they are stressed.

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That said, since both stress and acting on impulse can come in many forms, researchers do not fully understand how different kinds of impulsive behaviors or different kinds of stressors influence the link between stress, impulsiveness, and drinking alcohol. Read on to learn more about alcohol and impulse control, as well as alcohol and inhibitions. You can also discover how to connect with evidence-based treatment in your area.

How Does Alcohol Affect Impulse Control?

Alcohol can significantly impact impulse control, making it harder for individuals to resist urges and make thoughtful decisions.

As people move from childhood and teenage years into adulthood, they get better at things like stopping themselves from making hasty decisions, thinking logically, setting long-term goals, and planning how to achieve them. These skills are grouped together under the term executive functions. Not everyone’s executive function is the same, though. Some adults find it particularly difficult to control impulsive actions or use their critical thinking skills. Those who often act without thinking about the results may struggle more with controlling their impulses. This difficulty in controlling impulses can lead to problems with substance abuse and addiction, which are part of what’s called substance use disorder.

When you drink alcohol, it affects the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for judgment, decision-making, and controlling impulses. After consuming alcohol, then, some people might find themselves acting more recklessly or making alcohol mistakes they wouldn’t normally make when sober.

This reduction in impulse control can lead to immediate negative consequences, such as engaging in risky behaviors, and long-term issues, including an increased risk of developing alcohol dependence. Essentially, alcohol lowers the brain’s ability to say no to further drinking or other impulsive actions, creating a cycle that can be challenging to break.

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Does Alcohol Lower Inhibitions?

Alcohol lowers inhibitions as one of its most well-known effects on the brain and behavior. Inhibitions are the mental processes that restrain our actions, thoughts, and emotions, helping us to behave in socially acceptable ways. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, including areas of the brain responsible for self-control, judgment, and the ability to assess risk. As these areas become less active, people may feel more relaxed and less reserved, leading them to act more openly or take risks they would usually avoid.

As alcohol reduces inhibitions, this can contribute to more social and outgoing behavior, but it can also lead to decisions and actions that might be regretted later – engaging in unsafe activities or saying things you might not say when sober, for instance. How does alcohol lower inhibitions, then?

Why Does Alcohol Lower Inhibitions?

Alcohol lowers inhibitions primarily because it affects the brain’s neurochemistry, altering the balance of neurotransmitters that regulate mood, behavior, and self-control.

Specifically, alcohol increases the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, which can create a sense of euphoria and decrease feelings of anxiety. Simultaneously, alcohol inhibits the function of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and moderating social behavior. This dual action – boosting rewarding sensations while dampening the brain’s regulatory mechanisms – leads to a reduction in inhibitions. This means that people under the influence of alcohol may find themselves more willing to engage in behaviors they would typically restrain, due to the diminished ability of the brain to evaluate the consequences of those actions accurately.

How to Improve Impulse Control with Alcohol

Impulse control issued triggered by alcohol abuse can be managed using a combination of strategies aimed at enhancing self-regulation and making mindful decisions about drinking. Here are some effective approaches:

  • Set clear drinking limits: Before drinking, decide how many drinks you’ll have and stick to that limit to prevent overindulgence.
  • Understand your triggers: Identify situations or emotions that prompt you to drink impulsively and develop strategies to manage or avoid them.
  • Practice delayed gratification: When you feel the urge to drink, wait 15 to 20 minutes before acting on it. This can help reduce impulsive decisions related to alcohol consumption.
  • Seek support: Friends, family, or support groups can offer encouragement and accountability, helping you stick to your goals regarding alcohol use.
  • Engage in alternative activities: Find hobbies or interests that can distract from or replace the impulse to drink, especially during times you’re most likely to drink impulsively.
  • Mindfulness and meditation: These practices can enhance self-awareness and control, helping you recognize the urge to drink without immediately acting on it.
  • Limit alcohol accessibility: Keep less alcohol at home to reduce the temptation and ease of access when impulses strike.
  • Engage with professional help: If impulse control with alcohol is a consistent challenge, consider seeking help from a healthcare professional or therapist specializing in addiction.

By implementing these strategies, individuals can work towards better managing their impulses related to alcohol, leading to healthier drinking habits or even abstinence, if that is the goal.

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Get Treatment for Alcohol Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

Alcohol abuse can be damaging, but alcohol use disorder – the clinical term for alcoholism – is highly treatable with the right array of therapies. We can help you achieve and maintain sobriety at Renaissance Recovery in Southern California.

We specialize in the outpatient treatment of alcohol addictions and mental health disorders at our beachside facility in Huntington Beach, California.

We can provide more intensive treatment programs for anyone who needs more structure and support in their recovery. We can also refer you or your loved one to medical detoxification centers throughout the state, enabling you to get your recovery started the right way.

All treatment programs at Renaissance offer access to the following treatments:

Get immediate help combating alcohol addiction by calling 866.330.9449.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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