Your brain functions differently when you drink, impacting your mood, thoughts, behaviors, and more.
Who are you, and how you behave, can be two different things.
To illustrate this, think about what happens when you drink alcohol. While sober, you may feel nervous about dancing. But after a few drinks, you’re the one pulling friends out onto the dance floor to join you.
At this point, you may be wondering which version is the “core” of who you are.
It largely depends on how you define personality. But, in any case, there’s no doubt that alcohol can have an impact on how your brain functions, both in the short-term and the long-term.
Your personality may be comprised of many elements, and there’s no clear-cut definition. In fact, it’s a hotly debated topic by experts in the field of psychology.
Some experts suggest it may include:
- personality traits
- thought patterns
- values and morals
Certain aspects of your personality can lessen, or heighten, according to context — this is called adaptability.
While you won’t develop a “new personality” when you drink, it can influence your mood, judgment, insight, and behaviors in the short term.
This is because alcohol impacts the frontal lobe, which is associated with personality development and executive functioning, says Dr. Thomas McDonagh, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco.
Alcohol also affects your neurotransmitters, the messengers in your brain that communicate with each other.
“Alcohol increases the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA (an inhibitor) while decreasing glutamate (excitatory) activity, McDonagh says. “This causes brain functioning to be more inhibited than usual.”
All these factors can contribute to changes in your behavior while you drink.
GABA is an amino acid that blocks activity in your central nervous system (CNS). When you drink alcohol, this neurotransmitter activity increases, helping you feel more at ease.
Glutamate is an amino acid that contributes to memory formation and learning. When you drink, glutamate activity goes down, which is why things may feel a little fuzzy the next day.
Over the long term, the impact of alcohol depends on the amount and frequency you consume, says McDonagh.
“Chronic alcohol misuse has been shown to compromise many areas of functioning such as abstract thinking, problem solving, and perception of emotion,” he explains.
If you’re able to reduce your drinking, your brain function may recover in the first few months, he says. But for some people, memory issues and other deficits may be long lasting.
The impact on these areas of mental functioning could influence your behavior and personality, says McDonagh.
“The research is less clear for social drinkers, but three drinks or less per day appears to be the best guess to avoid permanent mental functioning issues,” he says.
There are both short-and long-term impacts of drinking, but support is available.
Drinking alcohol can impact your mood and behavior, making it appear as though your core personality has changed.
But with short-term alcohol use, the effects on your brain are only temporary. For example, you may feel comfortable being more social after a drink or two, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will impact other parts of who you are — such as your values, ethics, or personal beliefs.
Social drinking could lead you to feel a range of emotions and effects, according to
This can include:
- euphoria (extreme happiness or excitement)
- lowered inhibitions
- sensation-seeking behaviors
Long-term heavy drinking can impact your brain in two main ways, says Dr. Joseph Volpicelli, executive director at the Volpicelli Center for Addiction Treatment in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania.
Nerve cell activity
Over time, your brain has to make changes to compensate for the effects of alcohol.
“As alcohol increases neurochemicals that suppress nerve cells, opposing neurochemicals are activated that excite nerve cells,” Volpicelli says. “The net effect is that alcohol loses the ability to suppress nerve cells over time — this is called alcohol tolerance.”
“When someone who has been a chronic heavy drinker stops drinking, a rebound occurs in which nerve cells become hyperactive,” he explains.
This can show itself as:
- irritable mood
- broad changes in behavior
- increased stress response (fight, flight, or freeze)
“In severe cases, your [temperament] can change from being relatively mild-mannered to becoming highly unpredictable,” Volpicelli adds. “You can have withdrawal seizures, hallucinations, and paranoid thoughts.”
Alcohol-related brain damage
As alcohol is broken down in your body (metabolized), it creates a compound called acetaldehyde, says Volpicelli.
“This compound is essentially a poison to the body, causing inflammation,” he says. “This destroys surrounding cells that promote healthy nerve cell functioning. Over time, the actual nerve cells are destroyed, causing the brain to get smaller. Your ability to remember and think clearly may be impaired.”
The effects of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) can affect your [mind] in a profound way, adds Volpicelli.
“[You] can go from a vibrant, sharp individual to someone who has difficulty concentrating, making decisions, planning, or relating to other people,” Volpicelli says.
If you’re living with alcohol use disorder, there is hope. The sooner you move toward treatment, the better your prognosis will be.
“It is my opinion that this myth isn’t true,” says McDonagh. “People may act differently when they’re inebriated, but that’s due to the impact on the frontal lobe. A better test to bring out someone’s personality traits is to place them in a stressful situation and see how they respond.”
Volpicelli suggests that, perhaps, alcohol brings out the elements of your personality that are already there, making them more pronounced.
Let’s say you’re attracted to someone at a bar, for example. Before drinking, you may feel too shy to go up and talk with them. But after a few drinks, you may feel confident enough to flirt.
“Is your true personality a shy recluse, or are you fundamentally a social extrovert and only needed a few drinks to reveal your true nature?” Volpicelli asks. “A case can be made that your true personality includes both aspects. The addition of alcohol tips the balance so that one aspect of your personality may emerge over the other.”
The concept of personality is complex. With that said, alcohol is known to impact your brain in many ways.
In the short term, you may experience emotions that impact your thoughts and behaviors such as euphoria, relaxation, anger, or sadness.
With long-term use, alcohol can create withdrawal symptoms and brain damage, both of which can impact your behaviors and personality.
If you’re using alcohol to feel better, you’re not alone.
If you think you may have alcohol use disorder, consider speaking with a healthcare or mental health professional. They can help determine whether further evaluation may be helpful and whether treatment may be needed.
Other resources that may be helpful include:
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) support groups
National Insitute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Treatment Locator
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) Helpline
If you’re not sure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s hub on finding mental health support.