Consequences of Secondhand Drinking to One’s Health

Consequences of Secondhand Drinking to One's Health

eBook explains the consequences of Secondhand Drinking to one’s health.

The consequences of secondhand drinking to the health and quality of life for the person experiencing it can be hugely significant. Similar to the concept of secondhand smoke, secondhand drinking is the impacts on others of a person’s drinking behaviors (arguments, fights, violence, DUI, emotional abuse…).

The following is one of the Appendices from my
eBook, Crossing The Line From Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence. It was also included in a previous post of mine, “The Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking | Drugging,” appearing September 16, 2010, on this blog.

In this short, 80-page eBook, readers will find the latest brain and addiction-related research and science discoveries written for the general public that debunk the common myths about drinking alcohol. For it is in believing these myths that a person’s drinking can cross the line from alcohol use to abuse to dependence. This eBook can be used by parents, students, people worried about their drinking, clinicians, policy makers, law enforcement officials, doctors, veterans, domestic violence professionals, social workers, family law attorneys, medical school students, family members, business leaders and treatment center providers – the list is endless.

But with regards to this post – the eBook can help all concerned better understand what happens to family members and friends who love, live with, try to cope with someone who drinks too much. It explains secondhand drinking, a concept similar to that of secondhand smoke, and the consequences to one’s health if repeatedly coping with it.

Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking (SHD) – Appendix E

As first described in Myth 6 [Crossing The Line From Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence], a person’s drinking behaviors cause secondhand drinking (SHD) impacts for his/her friends and family members. SHD is what happens to the person on the receiving end of the drinking behaviors. For example, friends and family members are the ones who have to try keep that person safe, watch after them if they pass out, clean up after them if they puke in their car, get over their feelings of being hurt by the mean things they’d said the night before while drunk, live with the constant fighting about the drinking behaviors, and/or recover from the consequences of unwanted or unprotected sex.

Something most of us do not fully understand is the physical and emotional consequence to the health of a family member or friend caused by repeatedly dealing with secondhand drinking (SHD). It is one thing if this is an occasional happenstance (although even that can be catastrophic – being the victim of a drunk driver, for example), but when it is ongoing – as is the case for family members or friends who live with or love an alcohol abuser or alcoholic – the emotional and physical health consequences can be significant.

These health consequences are the result of the repetitive activation of the brain and body’s instinctual fight-or-flight (aka stress response) system. For many family members and friends, this fight-or-flight stress response system engages as they try to cope, control, minimize, deny, protect self and others when faced with a loved one’s chronic alcohol misuse and drinking behaviors with little or no understanding of the cause/condition/disease. The fight-or-flight stress response 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; and the digestive system to shut down and muscles controlling the bladder to relax in order to conserve glucose. (Ratey, John J., MD, SPARK, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, p. 64).
  • 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-flight (Ratey, p. 65); 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. (Ratey, p. 63) 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 – not to mention the brain impacts. You see, the system was designed to trigger flight-or-flight neural networks in the brain’s Limbic System, networks that momentarily “over-ride” the thinking/reasoning neural networks in the Cerebral Cortex, so as not to waste time and further endanger the person. As such, the person is “reacting” to the emotions of the situation from the Limbic System instead of “responding” to the facts of the situation from the Cerebral Cortex. Chronic activation of this system triggers a person’s brain to view causes of similar emotional cues (for example:  anger, anxiety, fear) as emergencies instead of something that may be alarming but not requiring immediate action without further thought. And, in a relationship with an alcohol abuser or alcoholic, there is a never-ending supply of these types of emotional cue causes: “What if he drives the kids after he’s been drinking?” “What if she stops for a drink after work?” “What if he gets drunk at my company’s holiday party, again?”

The physical and/or emotional health ramifications of chronically activating the fight-or-flight stress response 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.

Chronic exposure to/coping with SHD 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 and emotional impacts of secondhand drinking are real and often affect the more than one half of American adults who have a loved one who drinks too much and the one in four children who will live with a family member’s alcohol abuse or alcoholism before the age of 18. Millions more experience it in the workplace, classroom, on college campuses or by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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 them or ourselves, “Am I / Are they living with active alcohol misuse (either abuse or dependence)?” If the answer is, “Yes,” effective treatment (changing responses and reactions, for example) is far more complicated than simply treating the physical symptom/ailment. The details for how to address this complicated problem go beyond the scope of this book, but you can find more information and resources by visiting or reading the books, If You Loved Me, You’d Stop! What You Really Need To Know When Your Loved One Drinks Too Much and Loved One In Treatment? Now What!


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 Consequences of Secondhand Drinking to One’s Health

  1. […] how to live my life. One of the most significant findings was that the family member experiences brain changes as a consequence of the stress involved in trying to control that which is beyond their control – namely, their loved one’s […]

  2. […] Secondhand drinking is real. It hurts. And it can forever change a person’s life (at least until they understand it and can treat/change it). 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. They often experience quality-of-life changes that are beyond a “healthy” person’s comprehension. See The Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking. […]

  3. Barbara Beaumont says:

    Lisa was absolutely amazing at our staff development day with health teachers in the district. We all learned so much about second hand drinking. It’s great to be able to apply all our knowledge into the class this semester. Kudos to you for a great inservice. We all felt it was time and money well spent.

  4. […] Find out more about SHD and its impacts on the person experiencing it. Check out The Health Consequences of Secondhand […]

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