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Secondhand Drinking: Are You Affected?

Secondhand Drinking: Are You Affected?

Chances are, you’ve heard of secondhand smoking. Secondhand smoking exposes those around the smoker to many risks including problems with coughs, colds, asthma, pneumonia, heart disease. Secondhand smoking can even cause lung cancer. All of these side effects can happen without a person ever even taking a puff of a cigarette. The only wrongdoing of the victim of secondhand smoking? Being in close proximity or connection a cigarette smoker. So what about those who are friends, family, or closely connected with a person who misuses alcohol?

What Is Secondhand Drinking?

Secondhand Drinking (SHD) describes the impacts on a person who is on the receiving end of a person’s drinking behaviors. Ongoing exposure to drinking behaviors can create a change a person’s brain functions. You may ask, what qualifies as “drinking behaviors”. Drinking behaviors are behaviors in which a person engages as a result of excessive alcohol use, as alcoholic beverages change the function of the brain. These behaviors include:

  • Verbal, physical or emotional use
  • Neglect or bullying
  • Convoluted arguments or accusations
  • Physical fights or drunken arguments
  • Domestic violence
  • Problems at work or in school
  • Driving while impaired
  • Sexual assault; unprotected, unwanted or unplanned sex
  • Being loving/attentive while drinking; cold/distant when sober

Generally, the above behaviors are not intentional, but they can have profound effects on those around them – especially when the exposure is chronic. A person who is repeatedly exposed to SHD can develop a set of coping skills.

Skills For Coping With SHD

Brain changes that are caused by repetitive exposure to drinking behaviors and activation of the brain’s “fight-or-flight” response system can include:

  • Carrying pent-up emotions that can spill out in other situations
  • Retreating mentally or emotionally
  • Physically exiting the room or hiding when the alcohol user enters
  • Fear, anger or anxiety
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, or activities
  • Stress headaches or migraines
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Sleep issues
  • Chronic pain
  • Anxiety, depression or frequent mood swings

These physical and emotional responses to secondhand drinking can interfere with a person’s performance at work, in school, relationship and ability to enjoy life. The responses to secondhand drinking explain why when one person gets help for alcohol addiction, the entire family also needs their own care.

Why Secondhand Drinking Is A Serious Concern

Secondhand drinking is a major cause for concern for two reasons:

  1. The number of people affected by SHD Approximately 90 million Americans experience secondhand drinking. These people include parents, grandparents, children, spouses, siblings, coworkers, friends, in-laws and more. The ripple effect of alcohol misuse can extend to two to three times the number of people directly affected by SHD.
  2. The connection between SHD and stress Few of the near 90 million Americans who experience SHD understand that secondhand drinking is the cause of their health conditions – most prominently, stress. People coping with ongoing stress often experience quality of life impacts, physical and mental health problems.

People on the receiving end of drinking behaviors don’t necessarily face the type of stress or situations. For example, having to face the fallout when a loved one receives a DUI or injury from driving while impaired; deeply hurt feelings or loss of self-esteem; recovering from a broken bone after a domestic dispute; losing friends or dreading social events; changed family dynamics.

Secondhand Drinking Recovery

The fact is, no one sets out to become addicted to alcohol and cause secondhand drinking effects among their family or friends. Along the same lines, no one sets out to cope with secondhand drinking in harmful ways. Secondhand drinking can and does change lives. There are, however, ways for a person to minimize the impacts of secondhand drinking and find their recovery. Just like a person who battles alcohol addiction and misuse needs to seek help, so does a person who experiences secondhand drinking. Recovering from secondhand drinking involves repairing and healing the brain, rewiring the brain to healthy coping behaviors, and self-care.

  • Learn as much as you can about addiction. Knowledge is key when facing a serious disease such as addiction. Be prepared and supportive of your loved one when he or she communicates readiness for a change.
  • Learn as much as you can about secondhand drinking – and its impacts. Everything that you require your addicted loved one to do – you will also need to do. Facing the stress of secondhand drinking and addiction has chemically influenced your brain.
  • Practice self-care. It’s easy to lose yourself when you know a loved one is hurting. While your reactions and symptoms of their drinking behaviors are not intentional, your boundaries are doing more harm than good. Self-care doesn’t mean you’re being selfish; it means you’re taking the care and energy needed for your own well-being.
  • Attend meetings and/or seek professional care. Families and friends of addicted people need support, too. Whether it is a connection with other families who face similar challenges, or a family therapist who specializes in addiction – you are stronger with the support of others.

Remember, just like treating and responding to the effects of secondhand smoke, secondhand drinking prevention isn’t about stopping your loved one’s drinking or right to drink. Instead, it’s about protecting yourself from the negative drinking behaviors that result from alcohol misuse.