Alcohol & Your Emotional Fitness While Driving: Fatigue, Stress & AggressionUpdated Sept. 28, 2020
It is impossible to drive safely when you are angry, distressed, anxious or agitated. Experiencing an intense negative emotion will directly disrupt your ability to remain attentive while driving, affect the decisions you make in response to events on the roadway and alter your behavior towards other drivers. Driving requires a calm, positive attitude. In a heightened emotional state, you may not be able to process information properly and are more likely to make mistakes. Furthermore, strong negative emotions often lead to extremely dangerous aggressive driving behavior.
Even extreme positive emotions can be potentially problematic while driving. For example, extreme happiness or elation could result in over-confidence, which would leave you wide open for underestimating roadway risk and susceptible to making a fatal error.
Alcohol messes with people’s emotions, often in ways that are difficult to predict. Just as alcohol consumption will impair your physical and mental driving skills, it will interfere with your ability to maintain a calm and positive attitude behind the wheel. Drinking alcohol affects your emotional fitness both in the short-term and over time:
- While in your system, alcohol can exaggerate emotions you were already feeling. For example, if you were upset over a minor argument with a friend, you may become extremely distressed about the situation having consumed alcohol.
- In the long-term, alcohol has an overall depressive effect on mood. The more regularly and heavily you drink, the worse your general emotional well-being will be.
Alcohol and mood: contributing factors
In comparison to alcohol’s effects on the brain and body, alcohol’s effect on mood is wildly unpredictable. Everybody responds to alcohol differently, plus, there is no guarantee that a person will respond in the same way every time they drink. You could be a “happy drunk” nine out of ten times you consume alcohol yet be aggressive and obnoxious on the tenth occasion. The emotional fluctuations a person experiences when they consume alcohol are influenced by a variety of factors:
Experience with alcohol.
A person who does not drink regularly may be less prepared for the mood swings which often accompany alcohol consumption, and therefore more likely to have an extreme reaction.
The type of alcohol.
Some people find that they respond differently to different types of alcoholic beverage. It may be that beer, wine or hard liquor put you in a more aggressive mood than other types of alcohol.
A person who is fatigued is likely to have a more sudden, dramatic response to alcohol. Furthermore, physically negative feelings (extreme tiredness, lethargy, aches and pains) often translate into emotionally negative feelings when alcohol is involved.
A person with a compromised immune system is likely to suffer a more extreme reaction to alcohol intoxication.
Medication and illegal drugs.
Most prescription drugs, over the counter drugs and illegal drugs interact with alcohol in some way. They may lead you to be more intoxicated, less intoxicated, drowsier or to experience some other unanticipated reaction. Drugs which have a mood or cognition altering affect are particularly dangerous when mixed with alcohol and could result in an extreme emotional reaction.
Your emotional response to alcohol is greatly influenced by the mood you are in when you begin drinking. While alcohol can turn a good mood into a bad mood in a heartbeat, for no obvious reason, drinking is particularly dangerous if you start out angry, frustrated or depressed. Alcohol stimulates the part of the brain where these emotions occur, leaving you more susceptible to exaggerated anger, despair and the dangerous behaviors which accompany these feelings.
Alcohol affects different personality types differently. Often, drinking can bring out suppressed personality traits which do not appear to “fit” with the drinker’s personality while sober. For instance, a very shy and mild-mannered person may become loud and aggressive. Whereas, a confident and outgoing person may become stricken with anxiety and self-doubt.
Alcohol usually has an extreme affect on a person with pre-existing mental health or psychological issues, like anxiety, OCD or manic depression.
Alcohol tolerance and compensation
Regular drinkers build up what is known as psychological tolerance to alcohol. Tolerance does not mean that a person is any less vulnerable to the effects of alcohol intoxication, but it does mean that they may respond to alcohol differently. If you were to become a frequent drinker and build up a tolerance to alcohol, you would gradually find that you need to consume more alcohol to feel the same effects as you did as an inexperienced drinker. This phenomenon often leads drinkers with a high tolerance for alcohol to far surpass safe blood alcohol concentrations yet still manage to appear relatively sober, as they will have developed compensation mechanisms.
It is important to understand that developing a tolerance for alcohol does not mean you will be any less impaired while drunk. Your movements, speech and behavior may seem relatively normal as compared to an inexperienced drinker who has consumed the same amount of alcohol, but you will still be mentally, physically and emotionally unfit to drive. Moreover, research has demonstrated that drinkers with higher tolerance levels may be more susceptible to being involved in a drunk-driving collision. They are no better able to deal with emergency situations that drinkers with a low alcohol tolerance and yet more likely to falsely believe they are fit to drive.
Tolerance for alcohol will increase as you begin to drink more regularly, though it will not continue to increase forever. It is your liver’s job to filter alcohol from your blood and convert it into less harmful substances. Drinking large amounts of alcohol or drinking too frequently both put strain on liver function and will eventually lead to irreversible liver tissue damage. When damaged by excessive alcohol consumption, your liver will not be able to process alcohol so efficiently as it once could. It is for this reason that long-term heavy drinkers eventually reach a stage where they become less tolerant to alcohol and suffer more severe mental, emotional and physical effects when they drink.
Alcohol and stress
While low-level stress can be a performance enhancer in high-risk situations, excessive stress can lead to anxiety, nervousness, irritability and other feelings which skew your view of the world, hinder performance and leave you more susceptible to making mistakes. For instance:
- Nervousness or anxiety could lead you to drive too slowly, overreact to minor mistakes and compensate for imagined dangers.
- Distraction and depression can make you forget vital driving tasks, like checking your blind spots, signaling or scanning the roadway up ahead.
- Irritability can make you impatient with other road users. If left unchecked, it can quickly evolve into aggressive driving behavior such as speeding or tailgating.
As a driver, you will need to pay attention to your stress levels and emotional well-being to avoid driving dangerously as a result of anxiety, frustration or some other stress response. Alcohol makes this very difficult to achieve and can ultimately worsen these negative feelings if consumed too regularly.
The detrimental effect that alcohol has on your mental and physical health can lead to anxiety and depression, even in people who did not previously suffer with these issues. The short-term euphoric effect of alcohol (as it increases dopamine levels in the brain) is the reason many people use it as relief from the daily stresses of life. When people who are already, anxious, nervous or otherwise effected by stress drink alcohol, it often exacerbates their emotions, making them less manageable. If there is alcohol in your system you are likely to be more impaired by negative emotions while driving, yet less able to recognize that impairment.
Drinking to relieve stress is a slippery (and ineffective) slope. The more often alcohol interferes with the normal functioning of your brain, the poorer your mental health will be. As time goes by, you will rely more heavily on alcohol to ease your increasing feelings of stress or anxiety. Slowly, the short-term “relief” alcohol provides will become less effective, leading you to consume more when you do drink. This becomes a vicious cycle, as each time you drink you are aggravating your emotions and disrupting your mental health even further.
Alcohol and mental health
Drinking alcohol is one of the worst things you can do for your mental and emotional well-being. When a person is intoxicated, they often experience a false sense of happiness and euphoria as alcohol prompts their brain to release a rush of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. When they then sober up (usually the next day) they may experience acute feelings of sadness, doom or apathy. This is because the alcohol-induced rush of dopamine has rendered the brain less responsive to normal dopamine release mechanisms. Until their brain chemicals naturally reset, a hungover person will be dopamine deficient and will continue to experience chronically low mood.
If you drink alcohol regularly, you will abuse your brain’s natural dopamine release mechanisms to such a degree that it will become incapable of regulating dopamine levels on its own. The only way to “feel better” will be to drink more alcohol or take another drug that offers a short-term fix. Unfortunately, the problem will never go away and will continue to get worse if you keep poisoning your body with alcohol and other mind-altering chemicals.
Failure to control emotions
Failure to control emotions while driving can lead you to be inattentive, overlook danger and make bad decisions. Getting a handle on your emotions can be challenging enough, without adding alcohol into the mix. Drinking alcohol impairs a person’s ability to self-evaluate and recognize negative emotions when they occur.
While under the influence of alcohol you are unlikely to notice when you drive aggressively, anxiously or in an otherwise risk-enhancing manner. Even if you do realize what is going on, there is a strong chance that you either will not care or will not know what to do about it.
Alcohol worsens emotional distress. A person who was feeling a bit down prior to drinking alcohol may end up completely overcome with despair after having a couple of drinks. When alcohol is added to the equation, frustration may turn into extreme impatience and minor annoyance could turn into anger. Behind the wheel, these emotions can be deadly:
- Anxiety will lead you to become distracted over other issues which do not relate to the driving task. It may also cause you to overreact to minor adverse events on the road, increasing the chances that you will lose control of the vehicle at a critical moment.
- Anger can cause you to speed, tailgate, cut off other drivers and see your fellow road users as the enemy.
- Sadness is distracting and can lead to delayed judgment and action behind the wheel.
- Impatience can cause you to maneuver hastily without fully considering the situation. It can also result in speeding, running red lights, rolling through stop signs and unsafe passing.
Remember that while under the influence of alcohol, any emotion you experience will be intensified. Your judgment will also be impaired, leaving you less able to identify and remedy the dangerous driving behavior resulting from these emotions. The chances of conflict with other roadway users is extremely high under these conditions, as potent negative feelings of anger, despair and anxiety do not lend themselves to courteous behavior.
People who have been drinking are often extremely volatile and prone to becoming angry over very minor provocations. As a result, alcohol consumption sometimes leads to out-of-character, aggressive and downright violent behavior. If you are a motorist who is prone to aggressive driving anyway (this is a problem among many male drivers, though it can affect both sexes), drinking alcohol would almost certainly lead you to make incredibly dangerous decisions behind the wheel.
While under the influence of alcohol, overconfidence may lead you to underestimate danger on the roadway around you. You will also experience a loss of inhibitions which, when combined with aggression, can result in tailgating, attempting to race other drivers or even trying to beat a train through a railroad crossing.
Alcohol is a nervous system depressant. Even in very low quantities it can slow your body down to the degree that you begin to feel sleepy. This affect will be considerably more powerful if you were already fatigued before drinking alcohol, as so many people are. If you start to feel drowsy behind the wheel, the most obvious and immediate danger is falling asleep. Losing consciousness for as little as a couple of seconds is enough to result in a catastrophic, deadly collision. Managing to keep yourself awake does not mean you are out of danger, as drowsiness while driving will:
- Render you less alert and aware of your immediate surroundings. You may fail to spot hazards and important changes in the roadway environment in time to adjust your driving behavior.
- Impair your cognition and judgment. You will be even less able to understand visual information and make safe driving decisions.
- Impair your motor skills and reaction time. Your movements will be slower and less precise, extending your reaction time and increasing the likelihood that you will lose control of the car.
A deadly weapon
Cars can be deadly weapons in any situation, let alone when an alcohol-impaired driver is at the wheel. Alcohol intoxication will transform even the most conscientious and safety-oriented motorist into a dangerous driver. In society, we very often hear about people under the influence of alcohol becoming dangerous and doing harm to others in non-driving situations too. This is sometimes the result of accidental mistakes but all too often, caused by deliberate, emotion-fueled aggression. Human emotions can be powerful, destructive forces when not properly managed.
Consider the behavior of young children, toddlers and babies who have not yet learned to control their emotions. They often scream, lash out at other people, break things and have absolutely no regard for their own safety. Alcohol’s effect on the brain interferes with the emotional control mechanisms you learned throughout childhood, leaving you primed to overreact to ANY negative situation or feeling. In this condition, you may lose sight of anything other than the emotion you are experiencing and be incapable of knowing the difference between right and wrong. This state-of-mind has devastating consequences for thousands of people around the United States every single year.
If you cause a serious traffic collision while under the influence of alcohol, there is an extremely high chance that you will either kill yourself or kill another person and end-up in prison for a very long time. There are enumerable people in jails and prisons around the country who have made this mistake. Most of them are not “bad” people. They are just ordinary men and women who made the stupid decision to drive after consuming alcohol and will now have to carry the burden of that decision with them for the rest of their lives. NEVER underestimate alcohol’s effect on your judgment and emotional control.
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