The Dangers of Secondhand Drinking

JourneyPure Staff

August 30, 2019

We have heard about secondhand smoking for decades now, as it claims the lives of 41,000 people each year in the United States alone. But we have not heard nearly as much about secondhand drinking despite the millions of people it affects on a daily basis.

Secondhand drinking, while it might sound strange, is a real problem that has caused disruption, chaos, and destruction in the lives of those who were simply unintentional collateral.

What is Secondhand Drinking?

Secondhand drinking occurs when a person who has been exposed to the drinking behaviors of someone else experiences changes in their brains. These changes can happen as a result of being exposed to a drinker who exhibits behaviors such as:

  • Verbally, emotionally, or physically abusing someone
  • Making damaging accusations about someone else
  • Starting and engaging in confusing arguments
  • Getting into physical altercations with others
  • Committing sexual assault
  • Being inconsistent in treatment of others (e.g. showing love to someone when drunk but ignoring them when sober)
  • Experiencing issues at work
  • Struggling to keep up at school

Addiction is a disease, however behaviors such as these make it difficult for many people to fully understand why, especially because they can be so hurtful. For several people, the hurt that comes from being around someone who drinks and who behaves in this manner can be too much to bear, often causing him or her to turn to alcohol to self-medicate. Those who are around drinkers on a regular basis are at greater risk for developing alcohol use disorder themselves than those who are occasionally exposed to drinkers.

Secondhand Drinking

Dangers of Secondhand Drinking

Science suggests that the brains of those who are regularly exposed to others who drink to excess become wired in a way that triggers the fight or flight stress response. This specific response can lead to the development of several issues that can be harmful to an individual and put his or her life in danger.

Fear and anxiety

Being around a drinker can produce feelings of both fear and anxiety, as it can be a common occurrence to walk on eggshells around him or her out of concern of triggering anger, frustration, sadness, or any other negative emotion that could not only negatively impact the drinker, but the other person, too. Fear and anxiety can be born and bred in an environment where “what the drinker says goes,” causing a person to become scared to share an opinion, express an emotion, make a joke, or simply just say or do the wrong thing. But fear can also come from watching a drinker put him or herself in dangerous positions, such as driving under the influence. Struggling to manage fear while knowing that a loved one is drunk but driving anyway can be almost impossible to do until the drinker gets to where he or she is going safely. Even after that, the fear can continue to linger until it happens again, and the cycle continues.

Both fear and anxiety can cause a person to struggle with issues such as low self-confidence, insecurity, and panic attacks, to name a few.


When the brain gets as heavily impacted as it does when exposed to a drinker and his or her behaviors, the changes that occur can trigger the onset of mental health disorders, especially depression. People with depression can experience the following symptoms:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Changes in appetite
  • Chronic pain
  • Irritability
  • Apathy
  • Sadness

Depression is a treatable condition, but many people who have it do not realize that how they are feeling is actually a clinical problem. Instead, the way that they are feeling might be what they consider to be their “normal”. Not getting any treatment for depression can cause these symptoms and others to get much worse and cause a person to become high risk for dropping out of school, difficulty maintaining employment, substance abuse and suicide.

Physical complications related to stress

A major portion of how secondhand drinking impacts a person is psychological and emotional, but there are also countless physical complications that a person can experience as a result of this problem.

Above all else, the most common denominator in all cases of secondhand drinking is stress. Almost all people who are dealing with this condition are overloaded with stress, which plays a huge role in the development of physical health problems. This stress can come from things such as abuse, manipulation, and neglect at the hands of the drinker and permeate into all other areas of one’s life. Stress has been known to cause mild, moderate, and severe physical issues, including the following:

  • Headaches
  • Low energy
  • Muscle aches
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of libido
  • Frequent illnesses (e.g. colds)
  • Racing heartbeat

These are just a few of the many physical complications that stress can lead to. And when someone is being stressed out on a regular basis, it becomes more likely for him or her to develop a number of physical health problems that can compromise his or her overall wellbeing.

Treatment for Secondhand Drinking

Secondhand drinking is not treated in the same way that alcoholism and other substance use disorders are, where a person participates in a treatment plan designed to help them overcome the challenges of addiction. Instead, secondhand drinking can be treated several different ways based on the needs of the individual. Some people see a therapist regularly to work on the issues connected to secondhand drinking, while others spend time learning about addiction and the impacts of alcoholism in an effort to heal. Support groups, especially Al-Anon, are also extremely beneficial in connecting those with secondhand drinking with others who share similar experiences and who can provide support.

Get Help Now

The disease of addiction is one that can be difficult to manage, even when in recovery. At JourneyPure Louisville, we can help you develop a strong foundation for your recovery so that you can continue to achieve success along the way.