The Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking | Drugging

The Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking | Drugging

Secondhand drinking is what happens to the wife at work, unable to concentrate, because she's worried her husband's boss will fire him for calling in sick, again, after drinking heavily the night before - worried they'll lose their home if he loses his job.

Secondhand drinking is what happens to the wife at work, unable to concentrate, because she’s worried her husband’s boss will fire him for calling in sick, again, after drinking heavily the night before – worried they’ll lose their home if he loses his job.

Secondhand drinking is what happens to the child who's on the receiving end of his parents drinking behaviors, such as their repeated arguments about or because of heavy drinking.

Secondhand drinking is what happens to the child who’s on the receiving end of his parents drinking behaviors, such as their repeated arguments about the drinking – the boy who is unable to sleep at night, to concentrate in school the next day, who becomes isolated and angry because he can’t make the fighting stop.

The health consequences of secondhand drinking | drugging can be as far-reaching as those experienced by the alcoholic | drug addict. They are the impacts experienced by the family member or friend who is repeatedly on the receiving end of a loved one’s drinking or drug abuse behaviors.

What are those drinking | drug abuse behaviors that cause secondhand drinking | drugging health consequences for others?

  • Fighting with friends or family about the drinking; saying or doing things you don’t remember or regret.
  • Driving while under the influence; getting a DUI (DWI); riding in a car driven by someone who has been drinking. [Speaking of getting a DUI. According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles website, a person weighing 110-129 lbs. and having 2 drinks in an hour will probably have a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of .08. A person weighing 130-149 lbs. and having 3 drinks in 2 hours will probably have a BAC of .08. And a person weighing 170-189 lbs. and having 4 drinks in 2 hours will also likely have a BAC of .08. A BAC of .08 will result in an arrest for a DUI/DWI. Additionally, even if a person only registers a BAC of .04, he/she can still be charged with a DUI – the charge is driving while impaired.]
  • Experiencing blackouts – fragmentary or complete; vomiting; passing out.
  • Doing poorly at work or school because of the drinking or recovering from the effects of drinking.
  • Having unplanned unwanted or unprotected sex; committing date rape.
  • Being admitted to the emergency room with a high Blood Alcohol Content (BAC), in addition to the “real” reason (e.g., broken arm, feel down the stairs, auto accident).
  • Binge drinking (defined as drinking 4 or more standard drinks on an occasion for women; 5 or more for men).

The health consequences of secondhand drinking | drugging (SHDD) explained

Something most of us do not fully understand is the physical and emotional consequences to the health of a family member or friend that are caused by secondhand drinking/drugging (SHDD). These health consequences are the result of the repetitive activation of the brain and body’s instinctual fight-or-flight stress response system. For many family members and friends, this system instinctively engages as they try to cope, control, minimize, deny, protect self and others when faced with a loved one’s chronic substance misuse with little or no understanding of the condition/disease.

Taking an excerpt from my latest book, Loved One In Treatment? Now What!:

The Fight-or-Flight (a.ka. Stress Response) System
The fight-or-flight system is complex, but in very GENERAL terms, it works as follows.

The system engages when the key stress hormones – adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol are triggered. These stress hormones cause a number of reactions: blood vessels under the skin to constrict to prevent blood loss in case of injury; endorphins to kick in to blunt pain; the digestive system to shut down and muscles controlling the bladder to relax in order to conserve glucose.59 These stress hormones also cause the bronchial tubes of the lungs to dilate in order to carry more oxygen to the muscles; the liver to breakdown stored complex carbohydrates into usable glucose for energy; the blockage of insulin receptors at the nonessential tissues and organ sites in order to increase the flow of glucose to areas needed for fight-or-flight60 and an increase in heart rate and blood flow to the large muscles so as to enable a person to “run faster, jump higher.” This response system even causes the pupils to dilate in order to see better. It’s impressive what our bodies can do in such a short time without consciously “thinking” about it!

All of this occurs because the instinctual hardwiring of our fight-or-flight system was “built in” to be triggered by physical danger in order to keep humans safe – “RUN or FIGHT but don’t just stand there!! That’s a gigantic woolly mammoth coming at you!”

Today, however, the fight-or-flight system is triggered more often than not by thoughts and emotions rather than actual physical danger.61 Nevertheless, all of the physical changes that the system sets in motion – the increased glucose, heart rate and muscle contractions, for example – still occur. Yet, for the most part, a person does not engage in the physical activity that expends the energy these physical changes are meant to support.

Therefore, if a person is under repeated or constant stress, all of the physiological reactions just “sit” in various body tissues until (or if) they are reabsorbed or expended. The physical and/or emotional health ramifications of chronically activating the fight-or-flight system, but not carrying it through to its conclusion, are many. They may include: headaches, upset stomach, skin rashes, hair loss, racing heartbeat, back pain, muscle aches, anxiety, depression, migraines, difficulty concentrating, vertigo and the like. SHDD might also result in:

  • Heart Disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Chronic sinusitis
  • Unexplained joint pain, night sweats, or fever.
  • Excessive weight gain or loss
  • Chronic fatigue and immune deficiency syndrome
  • Spastic colon or IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)

The physical (let alone emotional) impacts of secondhand drinking/drugging are real. Collectively, we must start to acknowledge this fact. And when we or someone else we love or know talks about these physical symptoms, we must ask ourselves, “Am I / Are they living with an active substance abuser?” If the answer is yes, effective treatment is far more complicated than simply treating the physical symptom/ailment.


Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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5 Responses to The Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking | Drugging

  1. […] Additionally, if you’re experiencing chronic secondhand drinking, you are also at higher risk for depression. It’s one of the outcomes of the chronic activation of the brain’s fight-or-flight stress response system, which is also a brain changer. For more on this, check out “Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking | Drugging.” […]

  2. Hello! I’ve never heard the term “secondhand drinking/drugging before. Brilliant! It speaks perfectly to the reality that substance abuse disorder is a disease that affects all who interact with the user. Thinking of it this way can better empower us to take care of ourselves.

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