How Does Alcohol Change Your Personality?

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

Alcohol changes your personality in behavioural and emotional ways:

Header

SHORT TERM

LONG TERM

BEHAVIOURAL

Promiscuity
Risk-taking & Risky behaviours
Change of social peer group
Broken promises
Making excuses
Denial
Avoidance
Blaming others
Secrecy

EMOTIONAL

Anger/irritability/violence
Apathy/depression
Anxiety
Overconfidence
Reduced agreeableness
Reduced cognitive control
Reduced conscientiousness
Reduced motivation
Mood swings
Confusion
Emotionally volatility
High reactivity to stress
Shame/embarrassment/guilt
Narcissism

Short Term vs Long Term Changes In Personality As A Result Of Alcohol Consumption

Personality changes from alcohol consumption can be divided into short term and long term effects.

Short term changes can be considered a result of physical intoxication.

Whereas, long term changes in personality typically enable the pattern of alcoholism itself to continue.

Long term personality changes from drinking are a combined result of:

Short Term Changes In Personality

Behavioural Changes In Personality Traits - Short Term

Behavioural changes can occur as a short term reaction to the physical effects of alcohol.

Short term drinking may be a binge, or the start of a longer addiction, where the individual has learned that alcohol may be the answer, when attempting to cope with life's problems. It's unlikely that long term addiction patterns have not yet begun at this stage.

Alcohol acts as a depressant and reduces inhibition.

Short term behavioural changes to personality as a result of alcohol abuse include:

Risky Behaviour

Over time, drinking will usually become more extreme.

High risk behaviours that enable binge drinking or heavy drinking to continue will also increase.

Brushes with the law, losing access to children, accidents, hospitalisations, relationship breakdowns, can all result from a reduced sense of responsibility, focus on self, and attempts to preserve access to alcohol.

Promiscuity

Alcohol intake typically correlates with increased promiscuity.

A 2005 WHO(World Health Organization) study identified clear patterns between alcohol use and overly sexual behaviour, including:

  • The perception of alcohol-serving locations as contact places for sexual encounters
  • Use of alcohol during first sexual encounters [1]

A 1994 study indicated a correlation between alcohol use, promiscuity and a lack of meaning in life[2].

Self Control

Excessive drinking usually combines with decreased self control, and negative consequences.

A 2015 study demonstrated significant links between internal and external self-control regulation, and alcohol consumption[3].

Emotional Changes In Personality - Short Term

Agreeableness

A 2018 pooled analysis study of 39,722 participants found excessive alcohol consumption consistently resulted in decreased emotional stability, reduced agreeableness and reduced conscientousness, regardless of intake levels[4].

Motivation

A link exists between those vulnerable to alcohol use disorder and motivational behaviours such as impulsivity/novelty seeking, harm avoidance, and excitement seeking, according to this 2002 study[5].

Depression

The risks of experiencing depression increase with alcohol use, in a mutually reinforcing way[6].

Anger/Irritability/Violence

A 2010 cross national study concluded that alcohol is not causal of increased partner violence but does seem to exacerbate it[7].

Reacting To Stress/Emotionally Volatility/Mood Swings

Drinking typically results in short term increases in emotional instability and volatility.

Conversations or events which would otherwise seem inocuous, can incur extremes of reactivity in those who are intoxicated.

A 1985 study demonstrated that extreme behaviours and reactivity increased proportionate to alcohol intake[8].

Overconfidence

Under the intoxication of alcohol, the drinker may dismiss others more readily, or feign overconfidence in social situations, as a means to compensate for an increasing internal loss of self-worth.

Long Term Changes In Personality

Behavioural Changes In Personality - Long Term

Longer term changes in behaviour can also develop as a means to sustain and maintain an alcohol addiction over time.

Certain alcoholic personality traits develop to maintain access to their means of escaping pain, not intentionally inflicting pain on others.

Every behavioural change is subtle, works at an unconscious level, and seeks to maintain access to alcohol, even though there may be negative outcomes on others involved.

Notice not only the behaviour itself, but personality differences compared to the way the person used to behave.

All these behaviours hinge on the idea that the individual has adopted alcohol as their only means to cope with life. For the alcoholic, access to alcohol must be protected at all costs.

These personality trait changes are usually indicative of developing alcohol dependence:

Avoidance

An alcoholic will seek to avoid any people or situations that may result in reduced access to alcohol.

Broken Promises/Reneging On Responsibilities

To keep up appearances, the alcoholic may make promises he cannot keep, in order to maintain an appearance that their drinking is under control.

School appointments, household tasks and chores, commitments with children and partner can all be broken while trying to maintain access to alcohol, over time.

They may also break promises to themselves and others, of committing to having just one drink, when this later becomes a binge.

Change Of Social Peers

As drinking habits become longer term, an alcoholic's peer group typically changes to include only those who support their active addiction.

Denial

To admit an alcohol problem exists would threaten the alcoholics' access to their only coping mechanism. The psychological mechanism of deniability is invariably found alongside long term alcohol addiction, in our 16+ years clinic experience.

Making Excuses

An individual who previously may have been (e.g.) very punctual, rarely missing appointments etc, may later change their behaviour. Under the ongoing influence of alcohol, they may become forgetful, miss meetings or family time, and routinely make excuses for their oversights.

Blaming Others

Assigning blame for misdeeds onto others is a common pattern where the drinker attempts to deny wrongdoing that has occurred during periods of intoxication.

As the individual has developed dependence and reliance upon alcohol as a means to cope, defending oneself by blaming others would seem to protect the individual, and reduce the likelihood that alcohol is blamed for the errant behaviour.

Secrecy

Closely connected with emotions of guilt and shame, the alcoholic realises that addiction is not helping them or others, however in the absence of compensating supports, will continue addictiv behaviours, resorting to secrecy to hide the habit, if needed. This could include hiding drinks in specific locations, disappearing to an unknown location for periods of time with no explanation.

Emotional Changes In Personality - Long Term

In the brain, the amygdala regulates emotional states. The amygdala is extremely sensitive to changes in GABA (a neurotransmitter) induced by drinking alcohol[9].

The long term emotional effects of drinking on personality include:

Narcissism

Being mean to others, an increased sense of entitlement, and an inability to empathise with others' needs or feelings. These are all indirect mechanisms that protect the alcoholic's ongoing access to their coping mechanism.

Confusion

As liver toxicity increases, the likelihood of delusions increases, resulting in emotional symptoms of confusion or displacement.

Shame

Alternating with pride (overcompensation).

As the spiral of addiction and drinking continues, past shortcomings and misdemeanours occur more often. Feelings of responsibility arise in day-to-day thinking more often, and the alcoholic will typically drink even more to avoid these.

Can changes to personality as a result of drinking alcohol, remain present long term or permanently?

Short term changes typically manifest as more extreme reactions than normal, to specific events or circumstances.

In our experience in both our UK clinics, changes to personality which have occurred over the long term will usually subside once the active addiction is addressed, and the individual is in recovery.

This is because the underlying reasons for the adaptations in behaviour have changed - the alcohol that the individual was relying on as a means of coping - no longer has to be protected, therefore the associated behaviours are extinguished, as they no longer serve a purpose.

Long term alcoholism can result in GABA inhibitory receptors being altered[10].

However in the longer term, NMDA receptors in the brain have high plasticity, and may re-adapt to new, lower levels of alcohol present in the system, following withdrawal from alcohol and ongoing abstinence[11].

Reward pathways in the brain regulated by dopamine (a neurotransmitter) increase their activity in short-term consumption, but decrease activity with long term alcoholism[12].

Again, these neuronal pathways self-regulate, and will normally correct their regulation with longer term sobriety.

Will my personality change if I stop drinking?

From our experience working with alcohol clients since 2005, the changes in personality listed above are likely to decrease incrementally over time.

Can drinking alcohol make existing personality issues worse?

Alcohol may interact negatively with pre-existing mental health issues to exacerbate behavioural or personality changes[13].

Those particularly at risk are those with complex mental health diagnoses such as Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder.

In all cases, appropriate advice should be taken from mental health professionals, as to supervised withdrawal from alcohol and appropriate medication for the underlying conditions.

Can personality changes caused by alcoholism be reversed?

In our experience in addiction treatment, most personality changes caused by alcoholism can be reversed following long term abstinence from alcohol, provided the right supports are present.

Supervised treatment extinguishes the need for alcohol as a coping mechanism, therefore the previous behaviours are no longer required to support an addiction which no longer exists.

This of course assumes no co occurring disorders or complex personality disorders are present.

Always seek advice from your qualified medical professional in all cases.

Can drinking alcohol cause more serious mental health disorders to develop?

Since alcohol acts upon many brain pathways, the neurotransmitters regulating emotions and personality traits can be affected, resulting in a increased likelihood of developing emotional issues, however this is not pre-determined. Likelihoods will vary in each individual case.

Last Updated: January 18, 2023

About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Peter has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. Peter also co-authored the new 6th edition of Drugs In Use by Linda Dodds, writing Chapter 15 on Alcohol Related Liver Disease. Find Peter on Respiratory Academy, Aston University graduates, University of Birmingham, Q, Pharmaceutical Journal, the Dudley Pharmaceutical Committee, Dudley Council, Twitter, and LinkedIn.