We all know that having a few drinks impairs our brain functioning that’s why it is illegal to drink and drive. Alcohol is a socially acceptable way to relax and unwind. In moderation it can make us feel happier, more relaxed and gives us “dutch courage1. However, if alcohol is abused, it can have detrimental effects on our executive functioning including inhibitory control (i.e. the ability to control our impulses and resist temptation), working memory2, emotional control and sustained attention3.
We also all know that long term alcohol abuse can also result in learning and memory difficulties and can eventually lead to the development or exacerbation of mental health conditions4. What is interesting is that research tells us that those of us with ADHD are particularly vulnerable to additional executive function impairment due to alcohol5.
What happens to our brains when we drink alcohol?
The brain works by maintaining a careful balance of chemicals called neurotransmitters. When we drink alcohol, we disrupt this natural balance of neurotransmitters and our brains revert to a more instinctual mode as parts of the brain help us regulate (our prefrontal cortex and executive functions) go offline6. This can explain why we experience lowered inhibitions, confusion, altered movement, intense emotional reactions and injure ourselves without realising until the next day. If we consume alcohol regularly our brain becomes used to functioning in its more instinctual mode and opportunities to develop stronger executive functions in our prefrontal cortex are diminished.
Why do I find it difficult to stop after one drink?
During our first couple of drinks, alcohol acts as a stimulant by releasing endorphins and other happiness chemicals in our brains which make us feel good7! However when we move onto our third, forth and even fifth drinks of the night, the sedative effects of alcohol start to kick in. You find your inhibitions are much lower and you start to act more impulsively (i.e. you go into instinctual mode)8. At the neural level, alcohol suppresses our prefrontal cortex (as well as many other areas of our brain), which impairs our executive function skills including response inhibition9. Response inhibition helps us to resist temptations and control our impulses which is why we find it difficult to stop drinking after we have reached that threshold. And if we have weak response inhibition in the first place it makes it even harder for us to resist the temptation of another drink.
Why does alcohol affect my sleep?
Due to its sedative effects, drinking higher amounts of alcohol has been found to reduce the amount of REM sleep (i.e. the sleep phase in which we dream vividly) which is important for learning and making or retaining memories10. When the quantity or quality of our sleep is disrupted, this can have negative consequences on our executive functioning including reduced attentional capacities, working memory and difficulties in problem-solving and decision-making 9,10. This manifests itself when, following a night of drinking, we wake up with a ‘foggy’ brain and find it difficult to function as we usually would as our executive functions are essential for performing everyday tasks.
Why do I experience negative feelings the next day?
Alcohol is a depressant which affects the brain’s natural level of happiness chemicals including dopamine and serotonin11. Whilst consuming alcohol can make us feel happier, more relaxed and reduces stress, giving you a ‘happiness boost’, the next day your brain is deficient in these same chemicals which can make you feel anxious, down or depressed12. Research tells us that these feelings can last from 7-24 hours after drinking13!
In the long run alcohol dependence is associated with poor emotional control, our executive function skill which enables us to manage and regulate our emotions14. This means that it can be harder to manage our negative emotions and experience positive emotions. It can also lead to difficulties with mental health problems and handling stressful situations.
What support is available for me?
The power of an accountability partner!
An accountability partner is someone who can help you keep to a commitment by holding your accountable for your actions. Psychological research tells us this works well for a few reasons. Firstly, there is the verbal contract with another person which has been proven to help us stay on track that can motivate us to stick to our goals. Secondly, regular check-ins can help us recognise our progress (no matter how big or small) and the positive signs that we may miss. Thirdly, these check-ins can also help us understand why we may not be making progress and provide the opportunity to plan for potential obstacles.
With DryJanuary and better self-care on people’s minds in the new year, we are running two FREE online events this month on alcohol, executive functions and sleep to support you:
Join our online support communities
Back in March we set up two support groups on Facebook so that we could continue to provide free executive function support for individuals and their families. These groups are a safe place to talk about the difficulties that we all encounter with our own executive functioning. You will also benefit from expert knowledge, advice and free resources from the executive function coaching team at Connections in Mind and will be the first to know about our online events and interviews with experts in psychology and psychiatry.
Join our Executive Function Support Group for Adults by clicking here.
Join our Executive Function Support Group for Parents by clicking here.
Live Q&A: The effects of alcohol on our executive functioning
Thursday 22nd January 7:30pm (GMT)– Join us in a live Q&A ‘The effects of alcohol on executive functions.’ All you have to do to join the conversation is being on the homepage of our main Facebook page by clicking here. If you would like to be sent an email reminder please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org.
Free webinar: Sleep, executive functions and decision-making
Wednesday 27th January 8:00pm (GMT) We are also running a free webinar ‘Sleep, executive functions and decision-making’. Please click here to book your free place. This webinar will cover:
– How do executive function functions support our decision-making behaviours
– The impact of sleep on our executive functioning
– Behavioural and environmental strategies to improve sleep
– Available support
It’s never too late to turn your life around, no matter how dire your situation may feel in the moment. Reach out for help today and get the care you need. By seeking treatment, you can take back your life and prevent or reduce many of the risks associated with alcohol abuse. For more information about the support that is available to you please visit the NHS website by clicking here.
By Rebecca Tyler, Connections in Mind
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14Stappenbeck, C. A., & Fromme, K. (2014). The effects of alcohol, emotion regulation and emotional arousal on the dating aggression and intentions of men and women. Psychology and Addictive Behaviour, 28(1), 10-19.