In American society, drinking alcohol and drinking it frequently is often very natural, typical, and expected. So when a family member or friend’s frequency of drinking and their behavior when they are drinking changes, it can be confusing. As alcohol moves more and more into an important and central role in someone’s life, their ability to handle stress, changes, and conflict decreases. They can develop, what we in the substance use disorder treatment field, call “low frustration tolerance.”
Low frustration tolerance can cause all sorts of relationship problems. If alcohol is giving me a convenient and seemingly effective calming or “numbing” effect to the stress I feel, to my emotions I experience, then when I am not feeling some intoxication, even if mild, this “low frustration tolerance” can show up as feeling overwhelmed when any requests from others or negotiating with others needs to happen. If I am numb more and more often, as alcohol intake increases, then when I do feel, I REALLY FEEL IT. Otherwise, I am more often, numb and not in touch with my emotions – they are happening, but I am numb and not experiencing them.
Often, we in the addiction treatment field hear from spouses and partners, mothers and fathers, friends, “He acts like he does not even care that we are having some financial problems because of his drinking. He says nothing back to me at all.” Or, “Her personality is different. She isn’t even aware now of what is going on with me, her husband.”
Often, the pendulum will swing from numbing of emotions to exaggeration of emotions when there is a problem with alcohol. This can be very confusing to friends, employers, co-workers, and family. One side of the spectrum is the numbing – feeling nothing, including positive emotions – joy, gratitude, security, excitement. The other side is the exaggeration – anger, sometimes rage, sometimes crying and sobbing. Sometimes it is extreme fear.
When someone with an alcohol problem is on the exaggeration side of low frustration tolerance, then all the expression occurs – and this is different from that flat, calm, expressing little way of acting. Not being able to handle what one formerly did, having that “low frustration tolerance” type of day, can mean a lot of emotion is coming out. And family, friends, etc are confused and affected by this.
Getting help for problematic drinking means slowing down or stopping that pendulum swinging between feeling nothing/numb and explosive, overwhelming emotion. Talking with a counselor or being in a group or treatment program helps the drinker begin to see that other people in the group have been affected by alcohol IN THE VERY SAME WAY and that perhaps losing some control with alcohol causes physical, emotional, and thinking changes that we did not choose, when we drank a little more, and a little more. And this helps us make better choices with alcohol – that is called recovery.

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