Alcohol is known for its ability to amplify emotional expression and inhibition. While it may seem like anger is the most common emotion caused by alcohol, it may not be that straightforward.
Anger is an emotion made up of many different feelings like dissatisfaction, displeasure, hurt, and frustration. It’s a natural human response when life seems unfair or something you value is under threat.
Being angry doesn’t mean you’re aggressive or hostile. Anger can lead to aggression and hostility, but they aren’t the same. Aggression can also be rooted in emotions like fear or competitiveness. Likewise, hostility is an attitude of resentment and unfriendliness that doesn’t require feelings of anger.
It’s common for alcohol and anger to be stereotypically lumped together, but many people labeled “angry” while drinking may actually be experiencing aggression or hostility.
One of the areas of the brain alcohol affects is the frontal lobe. It is one of four major lobes of the brain and is located at the front of the skull. The frontal lobe is responsible for a variety of functions that can directly influence anger expression, such as:
- emotional regulation
- decision making
- impulse control
- behavior regulation
When alcohol suppresses these regulatory functions, it can affect how you express your thoughts and emotions, including anger.
If you live with underlying anger challenges, for example, it may not be as noticeable when you’re sober because your frontal lobe allows you to manage your emotions and your behaviors. When you drink alcohol, those inhibitions are lifted, and if you’re feeling angry, you’re more likely to express it and do so in an exaggerated way.
Why is anger so common among people who drink?
Extreme emotions that are usually hidden from others, like anger and sadness, may be more noticeable when you drink because you’re less able to conceal and manage them. When they come out, others notice them because they’re not a part of the everyday social experience.
Extreme happiness, or euphoria, is another common experience during drinking. As a positive, unalarming emotion and one that others are used to seeing, however, happiness isn’t on the radar as much as anger.
This can make anger feel more common than it actually is, simply because it’s more noticeable.
Anger expression may also be confused with aggression or hostility, two consequences of drinking commonly cited in research. The link between alcohol and aggression has been established since the 1990s, and a World Health Organization (WHO) committee in the 2000s noted aggression is more closely linked to alcohol use than any other psychoactive substance.
While anger can underlie aggression, you can be angry and not aggressive or aggressive without being angry.
How do you deal with an angry drunk person?
If you find yourself in a situation with someone who is angry while intoxicated, the first step is to assess your level of risk. There’s a difference in safety between someone who is expressing anger verbally and one who has become physically aggressive.
If you feel threatened, you can leave the situation and call local authorities. If the risk to yourself and others is low, you can try to deescalate the anger by:
- staying calm
- speaking softly
- slowly steering the person to a quiet area
- speaking in supportive phrases like “I just want to make sure you’re safe”
- assuring them they’ll feel better when the alcohol wears off
- listening and not arguing
- taking them or arranging for them to get home
- encourage them to drink water and slow or stop drinking alcohol for the moment
The co-treatment of alcohol recovery and anger management can be a very individualized process that may change according to your needs. Your treatment will depend on the role alcohol plays in your life and how present anger is during your everyday lived experience.
Because of the established link between aggression and alcohol, co-treatments have been developed that can also address anger while drinking.
Most of these treatments come from the framework of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a diverse psychotherapy that focuses on identifying unhelpful thoughts and behaviors and creating new, helpful patterns of thinking and feeling.
Different CBT-based approaches may be necessary to treat alcohol use and anger, including:
- stress inoculation
- cognitive restructuring
- functional analysis
- stress management strategies
- assertiveness training
Co-treatment may also involve other therapies, such as:
While psychotherapy is the primary approach for co-treatment of alcohol use and anger management, medications like mood stabilizers and those used to treat substance withdrawal may also be part of your treatment plan.
Talk with your doctor about reducing alcohol intake
Depending on the frequency of your use, you may need to discuss alcohol tapering strategies with your doctor. Heavy drinkers can experience severe and sometimes life threatening symptoms when reducing alcohol intake, so it’s important to have medical support.
It’s never too late to change your relationship with alcohol and anger. You can speak with someone and connect with treatment or support services at any time by calling the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.
You can also find resources in your local area by visiting:
The link between alcohol and anger has to do with alcohol’s ability to remove your inhibitions and disrupt your emotional regulation. When you drink alcohol, parts of your brain that manage anger are suppressed, making it more likely for angry feelings to bubble to the surface.
Anger is just one of many heightened emotional responses while drinking, but it’s often one of the most noticeable. While associated with aggression and hostility, it’s possible to be angry without those other experiences.
Alcohol use and anger can both be treated using psychotherapy approaches rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).