Why Do We Get Emotional When We Drink?

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Drinking influences our personalities in a variety of ways. Some people get happy. Others turn combative or impulsive. At one time or another, though, we’ve all been the emotional drunk, a condition typically marked by ill-timed espousals of affection (or reprisal), acute introspection, and an uncontrollable urge to cry in the middle of a crowded bar. Alcohol impacts every organ system in the body, but its effect on the brain is what determines our behavior while under its sway. And our emotions, the crux of what makes us human, rarely escape unscathed. 

Once that shot of Maker’s reaches your stomach, a small portion of the alcohol is absorbed into the blood through the stomach lining, while the majority passes to the small intestine where it’s absorbed. Alcohol dissolves into the blood’s water, is carried through the bloodstream, and is processed by the liver before being excreted. Before that happens, though, it’s able to cross the blood-brain barrier, which means it can directly enter the brain through circulation. At this point, you’ll notice changes in behavior and thought processes. 

Alcohol is a depressant, but not in the way that an occasional drink will make us psychologically “depressed” (although research supports a correlation between heavy drinking and depression). Rather, a depressant incites a chemical reaction that slows down activity in the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) responsible for interpreting sensory cues, controlling motor function, thinking and reasoning, and regulating emotion.

Once the barrier is breached, alcohol settles into the outermost layer of our brain, the cerebral cortex. This thin layer of cells (also known as grey matter) covers the cerebrum and cerebellum and is responsible for processing sensory information and thoughts, and for initiating the majority of our voluntary muscle movements. Alcohol disrupts the normal flow of neurotransmitters across the cortex’s synaptic connections, and we enter an altered state. The first thing to go is our inhibitions, which the booze-free cortex would typically keep in check. We become more talkative and assured, and our better judgment begins to slip away.

As more drinks are consumed, these effects become increasingly pronounced and more of the brain is pulled into the mix. The limbic system, a set of six inner structures tucked under the cerebrum, is believed to be the emotional center of the brain and is tasked with controlling our emotions and behavior, and forming long-term memories. Once alcohol begins affecting the limbic system, you’re most likely drunk.

As in the cortex, booze interrupts the electrical signals between synapses, we’re unable to interpret information properly, and processes are thrown into flux. The limbic system, which would typically keep our emotions in check, now subjects us to mood swings and exaggerated states. This can manifest itself as misunderstanding somebody’s intentions (the cause of most bar fights), misunderstanding or amplifying your own feelings (the cause of most bar breakups), or simply saying something embarrassing or regrettable (the cause of most Sunday morning facepalms). Because the limbic system is also responsible for helping form memories, there’s the added chance that, if you go entirely off the deep end, you may not be able to remember what you said or did the next day. Our drunken emotions more often than not tend to be exaggerated versions of our sober personality (i.e., if you’re generally happy, drinking will likely just make you silly), so if you’re drama-prone to begin with, best to just stick with water.  

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April 10, 2013 - 9:30am
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