Research has shown a reciprocal relationship between excessive alcohol use and violence, suggesting that alcohol use may promote aggressiveness while victims of the violence may be led to drinking more following physical harm.1 Studies also suggest that the more a person drinks, the more severe violence may become.2
An estimated 88,000 people die every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) due to alcohol-related issues including homicide, sexual assault, intimate partner violence and suicide.3 The American Society of Addiction Medicine notes that between 28% and 43% of violent injuries, and 47% of homicides, alcohol has been estimated to be involved.18
Although it may seem that only those who abuse alcohol are susceptible to violence, even those who consume moderate amounts may suffer from these aggressive behaviors.4 And while it’s not always clear which comes first—alcohol-induced aggression or alcoholism following violence—understanding their connection and why they occur, may help prevent harm to yourself or others in the future.
Alcohol and Violence
Various factors such as environment, individual and societal beliefs, dependence, and experiencing or witnessing aggression can all contribute to the link between alcohol consumption and violence.5 Although alcohol intoxication alone does not cause violence,5 its direct effects may interact with other factors to influence the expression of aggression.1
Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain
Research has shown that any amount of alcohol consumption disrupts normal brain function.1 It weakens our brain mechanisms that normally restrain impulsive behaviors such as aggression and can lead to misjudging situations and overreacting.1 For example, when a person is intoxicated, a small disagreement may quickly escalate to a physical fight because the drunk individual may feel unnecessarily threatened.
There are also various problems associated with increases in blood alcohol content (BAC) levels including poor reaction time, divided attention, and lowered alertness and sensory processing.6 These effects may cause individuals to act on violent thoughts because of an inaccurate assessment of future risks and consequences.1 Drinking alcohol can also reduce one’s ability to recognize warning signs in potentially violent situations, which can make an individual an easy target for perpetrators.1
Alcohol may also lead to feelings of sadness, irritability, anger or aggression and may increase the risk of making poor decisions based on intense moods.4 This could be anything from verbal outbursts to physical aggression toward others or even aggression toward yourself such as suicide.4,7 One study found that although alcohol abuse was a means of easing psychological stress, the impact it has on biological, psychological, social and environmental factors actually makes suicide more likely not less.7
Alcohol Abuse and Crime
Societal and personal beliefs that alcohol leads to aggressive behaviors can be used as a way of excusing violent acts or in preparation for violence. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), between 2006-2010, there were an average of 7,756 homicides attributable to alcohol use each year.8,9
Research shows that the use of alcohol among offenders is not only common, but the amount consumed is likely to be very high when the offense occurs.11 Data also found that 48% of homicide offenders drank right before the murder occurred and 37% were intoxicated during it.2 Additionally, 1 in 5 persons serving time for a violent crime between 2002 and 2008 reported being under the influence when the crime occurred.2
One study found that the estimated average BAC of violent crime offenders was double or triple the thresholds of impairment used in driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws.10 And, the more severe the crime or victim’s injuries, the more likely alcohol was involved.10
Intimate Partner Violence
Alcohol consumption, especially excessive drinking, is a major contributor to the occurrence of intimate partner violence, which refers to any behavior within an intimate relationship that causes sexual, physical, or psychological harm to those in the relationship.11
Studies have shown that substance abuse has been found to co-occur in 40-60% of intimate partner violence incidents and may play a role in precipitating or exacerbating violence.12 In the U.S., 35% of victims who were able to report on their attacker believed they had been drinking prior to the offense.11
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), high levels of alcohol consumption and more frequent intoxication are associated with an increased risk of experiencing an alcohol-related assault.11 Among individuals who’ve suffered spousal abuse, a link to developing a substance abuse problem or addiction has been identified.12
In 2014, the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 85% of victims of intimate partner violence are female.12 And when compared with women who’ve never experienced intimate partner violence, it is common for victims to show signs of high-risk alcohol abuse and/or substance abuse.12
Violence Within the LGBTQ Community
Literature surrounding intimate partner violence and alcohol abuse in the LGBTQ community is recent and limited compared to research among heterosexual couples. However, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults—when compared with their heterosexual counterparts—are more likely to engage in casual, binge, and heavy alcohol use.13
According to the CDC, individuals who self-identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual have an equal or higher prevalence of intimate partner violence compared to those who self-identify as heterosexuals.14 The lifetime prevalence of intimate partner violence was nearly 40% in a recent survey of men in same-gender relationships, with 22% of men reporting physical abuse in the past five years.12
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Prevention Measures For Alcohol-Related Violence
In the U.S., alcohol use has been normalized in today’s society.15 Risky drinking behaviors such as frequent consumption, binge drinking, or heavy alcohol use may seem like a common part of everyday life. However, along with its already negative effects on the mind and body, the violence associated with excessive alcohol use poses an important but preventable problem.11
To decrease or prevent the risk of violence, minimizing or quitting alcohol use is recommended, especially among those who’ve developed a dependence on alcohol. Though alcohol dependence does not constitute addiction, it is generally a sign that a person may be developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD).16 A person who has developed a physical dependence on alcohol may experience symptoms of withdrawal when quitting drinking as the brain attempts to balance itself chemically.16
When a person becomes addicted to alcohol, they may not only experience symptoms of withdrawal but also are likely to struggle with additional behavioral, emotional, and social consequences. Individuals may be addicted to alcohol when they are no longer able to stop drinking despite trying, continue to drink no matter the harmful ramifications, and experience emotional distress when not drinking.17
Treatment for alcoholism has shown to be effective in minimizing alcohol-related problems such as violence.11 In the U.S., one study found that addiction treatment among males significantly decreased both physical and psychological violence toward their wives.11 In a study amongst couples who completed behavioral marital therapy for alcoholism and remained sober during follow-up, decreased levels of marital violence was found.1
Understanding the link between alcohol and violence may also help with developing effective strategies in the future to prevent alcohol-related violence. With this increased awareness of the association between the two, it may prove effective for both victims and perpetrators.11
Where Can I Get Help Now?
If you’re experiencing violence due to a loved one’s alcohol abuse or you’re struggling with your own alcohol-related aggression, addiction treatment may be beneficial in preventing future violent behaviors or actions from occurring. An inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation program may be recommended to work toward sobriety and recovery.
During treatment, you may experience private and group counseling, family therapy, support group meetings and medications as a part of a comprehensive treatment plan for AUD. Behavioral therapies can help those struggling with issues such as aggression get to the root of the problem and better understand the triggers and coping mechanism that may have led to alcohol abuse.
Alcohol.org is a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers (AAC) which offers a nationwide portfolio of treatment facilities. AAC is committed to making recovery accessible to everyone in need and offers a combination of proven therapies and services to meet your individual needs.
Our hotline is available 24/7 and our admissions navigators are ready to speak with you today about your treatment options. Call us at 1-888-685-5770 or get a text to begin your journey toward sobriety and recovery. You can also use the free and confidential form below to see if your insurance covers substance abuse treatment within an AAC facility.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2000). Alcohol, Violence, and Aggression. Alcohol Alert, 38.
. John Hopkins Blomberg School of Public Health. (2015). Alcohol and Violence.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Alcohol Use and Your Health.
. Godlaski, A. J., & Giancola, P. R. (2009). Executive functioning, irritability, and alcohol-related aggression. Psychology of addictive behaviors: Journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 23(3), 391–403.
. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2011). Cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms of alcohol-related aggression. Nat Rev Neuroscience, 2;12(7):400-13.
. Loyola University Maryland. (n.d.). Calculate Your Blood Alcohol Level.
. Pompili, M., Serafini, G., Innamorati, M., Dominici, G., Ferracuti, S., Kotzalidis, G. D., et. al. (2010). Suicidal behavior and alcohol abuse. International journal of environmental research and public health, 7(4), 1392–1431.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Average for United States 2006-2010, Alcohol-Attributable Deaths Due to Excessive Alcohol Use.
. Wiley Online Library. (2010). The toxicology of homicide offenders and victims: A review.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol and Violence.
. World Health Organization. (2006). Interpersonal violence and alcohol.
. American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2014). Intimate Partner Violence and Co-Occurring Substance Abuse/Addiction.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Sexual Orientation and Estimates of Adult Substance Use and Mental Health: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). NISVS: An Overview of 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation.
. Sudhinaraset, M., Wigglesworth, C., & Takeuchi, D. T. (2016). Social and Cultural Contexts of Alcohol Use: Influences in a Social-Ecological Framework. Alcohol Research: Current reviews, 38(1), 35–45.
. Becker H. C. (2008). Alcohol Dependence, Withdrawal, And Relapse. Alcohol research & health : The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 31(4), 348–361.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018). Alcohol Use Disorder.
. ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine. (2018). Scope of the Problem.