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Being The Aggressive Drunk

Some of us may develop a temper when we’ve had a drink. It’s not unheard of. By making our brains release more of the “happy” chemical dopamine, alcohol can lower our inhibitions and make us more carefree. For some, this manifests in being more relaxed. For others, it can make us less concerned with the consequences of our actions.

On a recent holiday to Berlin, I got into a fiery argument with a close friend on a drunken night out. It was me at fault, blowing my fuse over something harmless, something she'd said that I’d taken the wrong way. The next morning, I apologised profusely; I was stricken with guilt over how I’d treated my friend and mortified that I’d ruined the fun.

The truth is this wasn’t an isolated incident. There have been other nights where I’ve argued with friends over a silly miscommunication, or where I’ve lost my temper with a stranger after they’ve accidentally bumped into me on the dance floor. Sober, I’m a patient and upbeat person; drunk, I’m someone else entirely.

It’s largely proven that drinking can make adults more violent. Statistics suggest that in almost half of violent crimes committed in the UK, the perpetrator was under the influence of alcohol. The Home Office detail how the night-time economy – i.e. bars, clubs and the alcohol they sell – increase crime rates, particularly in city centres. This problem is only heightened by binge drinking culture in the UK, and particularly effects “young males who do not know each other well.”

Alcohol doesn’t inspire aggression solely in men, though. In a 2012 study from the University of North Carolina, Nora Noel, PhD, a professor of psychology at the university, proposed that, in general, women were less likely to express anger assertively and suppressing this emotion can lead to an irritation build-up that may explode with alcohol.

This sounds familiar; I’m relatively docile day to day, but those closest to me have now started to refer to my drunken outbursts as ‘Prosecco Rage’. It makes me reticent to go on nights out with them and drink at the rate they do, just in case I start acting out of character. Internally, I wonder where this behaviour comes from, and whether my drunken anger reveals something more sinister about my personality.

Joshua Gowin, PHD of the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, explains that, “like any drug, alcohol doesn’t introduce behaviours that aren’t already present.” He claims that alcohol isn’t capable of creating new behaviours and merely heightens behaviours that already exist within us. Trouble is, alcohol dulls activity in your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which has been linked to self control and self reflection. So, when “normally, you would slow yourself down or realise your actions or reactions aren’t appropriate, when you’re drunk that doesn’t happen.”

Other scientists argue that outbursts of aggression when drunk are more of a genetic problem. According to Men's Fitness, a 2015 study in Finland found that people with a mutated form of the HTR2B gene had a tendency to become more violent, reckless and impulsive when they drink. In a small group of 14 Finnish people who carried ta certain mutated gene, those who had consumed alcohol were far more likely to pick a fight or explode into an aggressive outburst.

Do I need to just face up to the terrifying prospect that I really am an aggressive and angry person whose true identity is revealed after one too many Jägerbombs?

Does this mean I’m suffering from a faulty gene? Or can I say my brain’s prefrontal cortex is being dulled by my Friday night boozing? Or do I need to just face up to the terrifying prospect that I really am an aggressive and angry person whose true identity is revealed after one too many Jägerbombs? I took my concerns to integrated psychotherapist and couple’s counsellor Hilda Burke.

Hilda first told me that, no matter what our personality type is, it’s natural to experience anger. She explained: “Where we differ is the capacity to make sense of our emotions and how we express our feelings of anger. Sober, most of us have the ability to do this. However, alcohol is a disinhibitor. It breaks down the ability to rationalise and listen to others.” Therefore, if someone annoys us we are more likely to vocalise it when drunk.

By way of a solution to the problem, Hilda believes that going teetotal may be a good lifestyle change for some but isn’t actually exploring the root cause. Aggression and anger are symptoms of drinking. But alcohol isn’t the cause of these emotions. She says: “As anger is a secondary emotion, it’s often masking something else. Anger can be an emotion we express when we feel hurt, anxious or even insecure.” Hilda tells me to think back to those nights when anger took over.” How were you feeling emotionally? How were you feeling in yourself? Did you have an existing conflict with the person you argued with?”

She says that these are the things to explore simply because alcohol doesn’t create new behaviours and it doesn’t make you a different person. “When working with my clients, I try to unravel what the backdrop of the outburst was. This – rather than the anger itself – is what needs to be tackled. Of course the drunken outburst needs to be looked at as it can prove very damaging for a relationship. But to focus solely on alcohol is to address the symptom rather than the root issue.”
That’s not to say Hilda doesn’t think you can help the issue by curbing reckless drinking habits. She explains: “Drinking to ease your mood is never a wise choice. Similarly, drinking to excess is unlikely to make you behave well. If there is an emotion bubbling under the surface, a large quantity of alcohol is likely to see it emerge and invariably in a way that is not constructive.”

If drinking simply brings out the feelings you’re already having, then it makes sense that stopping drinking altogether might not make you feel better. Following my Berlin bust up with my friend, I went sober for a month to see how I’d enjoy nights out without alcohol. It wasn’t as challenging as I feared but being in a bar with your mates is not so fun when they’re screeching like hyenas on their fifth espresso martini and you’re sat there quietly sipping on your lime and soda.

For me, not drinking altogether doesn’t seem like a long term answer. Plus, talking to the experts makes me think there is an emotional link to my outbursts that I’m not seeing. As a 28-year-old girl, there’s always a plethora of insecurities, worries and self- doubt swirling through my head. Perhaps I need to examine what was going on psychologically for me on those nights where my temper was unleashed. Because alcohol may be fun, but alcohol mixed with anger, rage and apologies is not a cocktail I enjoy.