Well actually its a depressant, although it’s not quite as simple as that so read on.
This blog was inspired following a recent conversation with a friend, during which it seemed apparent that some people believe alcohol to be a stimulant. There is of course an element of truth in this, as there is a biphasic element of alcohol consumption in the early stages of the body processing it. The adrenaline glands are stimulated and the body dumps a load of sugar into the blood stream (the initial ‘glow’). Following this burst of activity, alcohol starts to slows down the brain by interfering with neurotransmissions, shrinking brain tissue and depressing the central nervous system.
I can however, understand how the consequent observable behaviours from alcohol consumption can be linked with alcohol being a stimulant. As the brain effects the cerebral cortex, the limbic system, the cerebellum, and the hypothalamus (it does affect other areas of the brain, however for the purpose of this blog I will focus on the main behaviour changing ones), it interferes with thought processes, body awareness and movements, emotions, sexual desire and performance, depresses inhibition, and blunts the senses. In behaviour terms the person drinking alcohol will become much more vocal and chatty, take more risks, seem more confident, outspoken and sexual, may make rash or poor decisions, and can become emotional and sometimes violent (with a dulling of pain responses). So it would be natural to conclude that alcohol consumption leads to heightened behavioural activity therefore must stimulate the body and mind as opposed to depressing it. In fact these behaviours are a direct result of alcohols depressive effects on the brain.
In Transactional Analysis (TA) the observed behaviours can be describe using ego states (Parent, Adult, Child) (now I am not going to go into too much theory here so please bear with me). Imagine that you have an internal message about being loud in public, it may go something like “you shouldn’t draw attention to yourself” or “you should be polite when you go out with friends” or perhaps “don’t make a fool out of yourself!” (Parent ego-state; thoughts, feelings and behaviours copied or learned from our real parents/care givers), you may respond to these messages by being quiet in groups, or you may feel embarrassed about laughing out loud, (Child ego-state; thoughts, feelings and behaviours experienced during childhood). If you really thought about those two sets of responses in the here-and-now reality you may decide that its okay to laugh and talk in groups and that you do not need to be loud, rude or aggressive in order to be heard or have a good time out (Adult ego state: thoughts, feelings and behaviours based on the here-and-now reality). Now lets bring alcohol into the equation. Alcohol consumption will virtually eliminate the Parent ego state controlling messages, and also the reality here-and-now testing, which really only leaves the Child ego state active, however this time your Child ego state is no longer supressed by Parent negative messages so becomes much more ‘free’, so now imagine an 8 year old without parental guidance, experiencing heightened emotions and a pocketful of money to buy more freedom, emotions, and experience less pain, and believe that they have seemingly no consequences for their behaviour! So to summarise, even in transactional analysis we describe the effects of alcohol to be of a depressant nature; that it depresses parts of our personality and therefore people under the influence of alcohol can behave very differently that when sober, we (TA therapists) infact use the term ‘excluded Parent and Adult ego state’ (and we also have a pretty diagram to go along with it too).
I believe that it is very important for therapists to have a good understanding of how alcohol effects our bodies and brains, we need to be able to spot it in our therapy room, to inform and educate our clients, and to understand how families (past and present) and familly dynamics are effected by alcohol missuse. This understanding is essential for both diagnosis and treatment planning, to ‘do no harm’ and ‘hold’ our clients safely while they reach their full potential as human beings (physis).
I would like to leave you with the following facts:
- The brain does not grow new brain cells.
- Alcohol kills brain cells.
- Less brain cells = less cognitive functioning.
Actually one of the above is not true … do you know which one it is?
Now where did I put that glass of wine?