Facts About Secondhand Drinking – the Impacts of a Person’s Drinking Behaviors on Others

Guest post by Lisa Frederiksen

We generally do not think much about what happens to people whose paths cross with those of a person who misuses alcohol[1] beyond the obvious, such as an auto accident caused by a drunk driver. It is unlikely most of us have ever encountered the term, Secondhand Drinking (SHD), although, now, reading it, we may draw a comparison to that of Secondhand Smoke.

Yet, secondhand drinking can forever alter these people’s lives. This is especially true if they are the family member or close friend who, over the course of their ongoing exposure to SHD, become victims, suffering their own consequential physical and emotional impairments.

These impairments are due to the brain changes caused by the chronic activation of the fight-or-flight stress response system, a system that engages when confronted with stress – danger – fear – anxiety. As a result of these brain and physical changes, family members and close friends repeatedly exposed to SHD often suffer anxiety, depression, stomach ailments, skin problems, obesity, sleep difficulties, migraines and a whole host of other conditions. They experience quality-of-life changes that are beyond a “healthy” person’s comprehension.  Not only this but the consequential physical and emotional impairments a person repeatedly exposed to SHD experiences changes them in ways that extends SHD impacts to those within their sphere of influence. This can include their co-workers, fellow students and relatives of family members. As will become apparent, SHD’s influence can touch most of us in one form or another.

These innocent sufferers have no idea that secondhand drinking is the cause of their symptoms, relationship problems or work/school performance issues. Rather they blame some other issue or just assume it’s “them” or accept the diagnosis, “migraines with no known cause” or “migraines due to stress,” for example (the latter of course being true but often the stress source is identified as the job, the kids or troubles at home). They don’t think to associate it with another person’s drinking behaviors because they’ve never had an awareness of the concept of secondhand drinking.

There’s a wonderful analogy describing what happens to these sufferers, and it is of the frog placed in a pot of cold water that is slowly brought to boil. By the time the water is finally boiling, the frog has no sense it’s in danger and boils to death instead of jumping out.

Secondhand drinking is what happens to the husband whose wife repeatedly promises to stop or cut down but every night can’t keep her promise. When he confronts her, she starts her offensive attacks on something he has or has not done as the reason for her drinking, causing him to go on the defensive and engage in the crazy, convoluted arguments that ensue. He rehashes these arguments over and over in his mind the next day while at work, unable to complete the task at hand, which holds up the next stage of the project on which his team is working.

Secondhand drinking is what happens to the boss whose life and the life of his daughter and the lives of every member of his immediate and extended family are shattered when his daughter is paralyzed in a head-on collision caused by a drunk driver.  As you can see, SHD can be a one-time event, but its ripple effects will last a lifetime causing physical and emotional outcomes unfathomable to most.

It is what happens to the wife and children of the veteran who turns to alcohol after his tour of duty ends – alcohol to relieve his untreated PTSD,[2] fears he’ll never find a job and confused feelings about returning to civilian life. His abuse of alcohol, untreated PTSD and the combination thereof changes his behaviors drastically. This throws his family into a tailspin as they all jockey for what to do to make him want to stop or get help. It’s what happens to that veteran’s son at school after a particularly rough night of parental arguing about the drinking, when he can’t concentrate in class and is embarrassed by his schoolmate’s snicker when he fails to answer the teacher’s question. He’s fuming by recess and tracks his classmate down, punching him in the face. For that he’s sent to the office, only to have his parents called because he’s a behavioral problem – again.

Secondhand drinking is what happens to the college roommate whose Friday and Saturday nights are spent watching out for her best friend who always gets drunk – making sure she doesn’t wander off with some guy, wrestling her car keys from her under a barrage of expletives, and once again holding her hair while she pukes, between sobs of, “I’m so sorry….”

Secondhand drinking is real. It hurts. And it changes lives. The heartening news is that understanding its causes is helping people (especially family members and children) learn what it takes to protect their emotional and physical health, including protecting their brains from the consequences of secondhand drinking.  For more on what to do to prevent and your recover from Secondhand Drinking, please consider these articles: Secondhand Drinking Prevention http://www.breakingthecycles.com/blog/2013/02/23/secondhand-drinking-prevention/ and Protecting Yourself From Secondhand Drinking http://www.breakingthecycles.com/blog/2011/01/27/protecting-yourself-from-secondhand-drinkingbeingb/

For frequent updates on secondhand drinking and other substance misuse related issues, please follow Lisa Frederiksen’s blog at www.BreakingTheCycles.com or her Facebook Page, BreakingTheCyclescom <https://www.facebook.com/BreakingTheCyclescom&gt;


[1] Alcohol misuse refers to binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism. These drinking patterns cause brain changes – especially in areas of the brain responsible for judgment, memory, coordination, pleasure/reward and reasoning. Alcohol misuse drinking patterns begin with “At-risk” drinking, which NIAAA identifies with a single question: For women: How many times in the past year have you had 4 or more standard drinks in a day? For men: How many times in the past year have you had five or more standard drinks in a day?  

These brain changes cause drinking behaviors as described in the sidebar above. (See Image Showing Brain Changes at conclusion of this Summary.) For the person experiencing secondhand drinking, the label does not matter. It’s the drinking behaviors that are of concern.

[2] Untreated PTSD and other mental illnesses often “cause” a person to drink. The alcohol helps them self-medicate the symptoms of the mental illness because it works on the brain’s dopamine pleasure/reward pathways.


Posted on April 17, 2013, in Personal Growth. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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