I bet you knew that alcohol use, including routine binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism, leads to serious brain changes. These brain alterations can negatively impact a person’s cognitive thinking skills, visuospatial perception, motor skills, short and long-term memory, and decision-making abilities. Brain changes can exist in the alcoholic who quits drinking after years of heavy drinking, the binge drinker who overindulges on weekends, as well as the social drinker who routinely gets buzzed throughout the week.
There’s no doubt about it, drinking alcohol changes the brain of the person who drinks it. But did you also know that coping with someone who drinks too much can negatively change the brains of the people in the life of the drinker?
Lisa Frederiksen has spent 40+ years coping with loved ones who drank too much and 16 years studying scientific research on brain development, alcohol use disorders, and the family member’s experience. All of Lisa’s experience comes together in her latest book, 10th Anniversary Edition If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!, What you really need to know when your loved one drinks too much.” Frederiksen is a nationally recognized keynote speaker, consultant, and author. She started her website, BreakingTheCycles.com, in 2008 to change – and in some cases simply start – the conversations around these issues.
I asked Lisa a few questions about how drinking changes brains, for the person drinking and those around them.
What exactly is second-hand drinking?
Secondhand drinking is a term used to describe the negative impacts of one individual’s drinking behaviors on the people around them. “Drinking behaviors” are the actions a person engages in as a result of alcohol changing their brain function. These brain changes can result from a variety of drinking patterns ranging from heavy social drinking and binge drinking to alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
- verbal, physical, emotional abuse
- neglect of loved ones
- driving while under the influence; getting a DUI (DWI); riding in a car driven by someone who has been drinking
- experiencing blackouts – partial or complete; passing out; not remembering what was said or while under the
- doing poorly at work or school because of the drinking or the effects of drinking
- having unplanned, unwanted, or unprotected sex; committing date rape
- being admitted to the emergency room with a high blood alcohol content in addition to the “real” reason — broken arm, feel down the stairs, auto accident, for example
- alcohol-involved domestic violence or suicide attempt.
Drinking Creates an Environment of Toxic Stress
It comes down to toxic stress, doesn’t it? Drinking creates an environment of toxic stress for the people around the drinker. The chronic stress detrimentally changes their brains.
When it’s triggered, a cascade of stress hormones causes a series of changes in the body preparing it to fight or run. Physical changes happen almost instantaneously. Your heart rate increases and blood gets pumped to your muscles. Your digestive system and frontal lobe thinking basically shut down. These changes might enable you to jump out of the path of an oncoming car or experience superhuman strength to lift a fallen beam off a child if necessary.
The physical act of jumping out of the way or lifting the beam — averting the danger — allows the body to return to normal functioning. Back when our ancestors were chased by predators this was a useful trait that helped our species survive. Today, however, our fight-or-flight stress response is repeatedly triggered, but we never physically fight or run. The increased stress hormones and other physical changes linger in body organs and tissues — like the brain, heart, muscles, and stomach. This is when stress becomes toxic and damages your brain.
The physical and emotional health consequences of toxic stress are many and can include:
- stomach problems
- muscle aches
- sleep difficulties
- tension headaches
- difficulty concentrating
- racing heartbeat,
- skin problems
- and more.
According to the Center on the Developing Child Harvard University, when children experience toxic stress, “it weakens the architecture of the developing brain, with long term consequences for learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.”
Adverse Childhood Experiences Are Common
Often, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are involved for the person with a drinking problem and children growing up with them. Can you explain further?
Participants were asked to fill out a ten-question questionnaire about their childhoods. Their answers were compared to their medical histories. The results showed that experiencing adverse childhood experiences were linked to a variety of physical and emotional health problems across a lifetime. The resulting health problems included: depression, substance abuse or addiction to alcohol or drugs, obesity, diabetes, suicide attempts, heart disease, cancer, STDs, broken bones, smoking, and having a stroke. The more ACEs a person had, the more likely they were to have or develop one or more of the health problems.
10 Types of Adverse Childhood Experiences Measured in the ACE Study Questionnaire
Of the 10 questions asked: five were personal, meaning it was something done to the child. These five included:
- physical abuse
- verbal abuse
- sexual abuse
- physical neglect
- emotional neglect.
- a parent who abused alcohol or other drugs or was addicted to alcohol or other drugs
- a mother (or step-mother) who was a victim of domestic violence
- a family member in jail
- a family member diagnosed with a mental illness
- the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death, or abandonment.
The study found that almost two-thirds of the 17,000 participants had experienced at least one ACE. Of those with one ACE, 87 percent had two or more. The more ACEs the person experienced, the more likely they were to have developed an alcohol or drug use disorder, marry someone with an alcohol or drug use disorder, have depression or any of the other health problems listed above. A person with five ACEs, for example, has an eight times greater chance of being an alcoholic, and a person with four or more ACEs has twice the risk of cancer.
Since that original CDC-Kaiser ACE Study, more adverse childhood experiences have been identified, and many experiences are now considered ACEs. Poverty, racism, bullying, watching a sibling being abused, losing a caregiver (grandmother, step-mother, grandfather, etc.), homelessness, surviving and recovering from a severe accident, living in a war zone, witnessing a grandmother abusing a parent, involvement with the foster care system, and involvement with the juvenile justice system, now qualify.
How an Impacted Brain Can Heal
What’s the solution? How does a “second-hand drinkers” brain heal?
Basically, we can follow the Secondhand Smoking Prevention model here. I explain it in my book, 10th Anniversary Edition If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!, like this:
When we, as a society, took the focus off the cigarette smoker and instead focused on the new science that explained what a person’s cigarette smoke did to the health of others in its proximity, we had a sea change. Finally, people could understand that someone else’s cigarette smoke was the reason for their severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, heart disease, or lung cancer.
As this understanding grew, more people gained the information and the confidence they needed to take a stand against a person’s cigarette smoke – not the smoker – and to do what they needed to do to protect and repair their own health, regardless of whether the smoker stopped smoking.
New science is now available that can do similar things for people coping with a loved one’s drinking behaviors.”
So, the solution doesn’t just center on the person who drinks?
When we, as a society, take the focus off the drinker and instead focus on the new science that explains what coping with their drinking behaviors does to others – we can create another sea change.
Finally, people will understand that repeatedly coping with a person’s drinking behaviors is the likely cause of their migraines, anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, stomach ailments, skin problems, heart disease, and similar health concerns. As you’ll soon learn in the next chapter, these conditions are the consequences of toxic stress.With this understanding people can get the information and the confidence they need to take a stand against drinking behaviors – not the drinker – and to do what they need to do to protect and repair their own health, regardless of whether the drinker changes their drinking pattern and/or treats their alcoholism.”
Practical tools and action steps for healing one’s brain of secondhand drinking are readily available. However, there’s not enough room to cover them here. Several chapters address this in Lisa’s book, 10th Anniversary Edition If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!.
It All Comes Down To Neuroplasticity
The ability of a person’s brain to adapt and change in response to its experiences and environment is called neuroplasticity. It’s the mechanism at work here. Neuroplasticity can either help you or hurt you. In the case of being around someone with a drinking use disorder and an environment of toxic stress, negative neuroplastic change is happening. Neuroplasticity is also how a person’s brain heals.