Why the Term Secondhand Drinking – Alcohol Awareness Month

Why the term Secondhand Drinking and why now? This article is Part 2 in BreakingTheCycles.com’s celebration of April as Alcohol Awareness Month, 2014.

As shared in last week’s post, Secondhand Drinking (SHD) is the other side of the drinking equation.

What is Secondhand Drinking 

New imaging technologies if the recent 15-20 years provide the visual "proof' of brain changes caused by alcohol misuses.

New imaging technologies if the recent 15-20 years provide the visual “proof’ of brain changes caused by alcohol misuse.

Secondhand drinking (SHD) is a term to describe the negative impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others. Drinking behaviors are not intentional. Rather they are what happen when alcohol changes the way a person’s brain works.

Secondhand drinking directly affects approximately 90 million Americans. This is five times the number of people who are causing drinking behaviors. These behaviors include verbal, physical or emotional abuse, driving while impaired, domestic violence, committing a crime or sexual assault, to name a few.

What Happens to the Person Experiencing Secondhand Drinking  

Children are often hurt by secondhand drinking.

Children can be deeply affected by secondhand drinking.

People on the receiving end of drinking behaviors experience a range of negative impacts, such as:

  • Deeply hurt feelings, loosing one’s self-esteem, walking on eggshells.
  • Having to deal with the fall-out of someone driving while impaired, whether that is death or injury or ticketed DUI, for example.
  • Recovering from a broken arm after a brutal beating or sexual assault.
  • Developing depression or anxiety, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness.
  • Taking medications for stomach ailments or sleep disorders.
  • Unable to concentrate at work or in school, worried about what happened or will happen.
  • Losing friends, dreading social events, trying to keep track of a constant stream of white lies and cover-ups.
  • Changed family dynamics, divorce.
  • Developing a substance abuse problem.

Why the Term Secondhand Drinking  

It is similar to the idea that secondhand smoke causes health problems for those exposed to a person’s smoking. This “thing” related to a person’s drinking behaviors (this secondhand drinking) causes health and quality-of-life problems for those exposed to it.

SHD’s negative health impacts are typically caused by the brain’s fight-or-flight stress response system (FFSRS). This system and these impacts will be described later in this series of articles. For now, it is important to understand that people coping with ongoing stress, like many of the 90 million Americans directly affected by SHD, often experience the quality of life impacts described above, as well as physical and mental health problems. These can include: sleep difficulties, migraines, anxiety, depression, stomach ailments, skin problems, obesity, and many other health conditions.

A Common Term for Underlying Symptoms

The 90 million Americans experiencing SHD-related stress have no idea that secondhand drinking is the cause of their health conditions. They have no idea it is a reason for their relationship problems or their quality-of-life or their work and school performance issues.  Thus they have no idea how to use “The Science of Why” to counter SHD and avoid these impacts.

Without a common term to talk about the common thread – impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others – millions of Americans, like Joanne, Susan, Adam and his mom, experience SHD’s unchallenged march through their lives.  Not only this, but their repeatedly coping with SHD experiences changes them in ways that extends SHD impacts to those whose lives they touch. These are the millions more people who are indirectly affected by SHD. (Check out what happens to people like Susan’s partner, Adam’s teacher and classmates and John’s co-workers shared in last week’s article).

These same kinds of situations were true for people exposed to secondhand smoke. They had no idea another person’s cigarette smoke was the reason for their severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, heart disease or lung cancer. Just as things changed for people exposed to secondhand smoke when new scientific research became available, so too can things change for people exposed to SHD.

DISCLAIMER: This series of articles on SHD is NOT about stopping a person’s right to drink. It is about helping readers understand SHD and what they can do to prevent it or to protect themselves if faced with it.

Why Now

We have been talking around secondhand drinking for ages. We have been using concepts and terms such as:

  • Absenteeism, Lost Productivity, Safety Risks, Health Care Costs, Employee Wellness in the workplace.
  • A Right of Passage, Something All Young People Do, Just a Phase in our schools and amongst parents.
  • Mental illness, Physical and Emotional Health Diagnoses in our visits with doctors.
  • Divorce, Loss of Employment, Failure in School, Domestic Violence, Death by Suicide, Child Abuse, Bullying, Alcohol-related Crime and Recidivism, Drunk Driving and Public Health and Safety in our workplaces, families, friendships and communities.
  • Codependency, Enabling in addiction treatment and recovery circles.

But these concepts and terms only address the symptoms. Just as treating asthma or respiratory infections or ear infections without removing the secondhand smoke only addressed the symptoms of the underlying cause, another person’s cigarette smoke.

Thus The Time Is Now Because The Science Is Now Available

It is now possible to follow the secondhand smoking prevention model and use 21st century brain research to explain the science of:

  • Why is it that exposure to SHD causes stress?
  • What stress has to do with possible brain changes and what these brain changes have to do with physical and emotional health?
  • Why people keep engaging in drinking behaviors even though it hurts the people they love the most?
  • Why alcohol chemically changes how the brain works (which is a key cause of drinking behaviors) and what the liver has to do with it?
Raising awareness about both sides of the drinking equation - drinking behaviors and secondhand drinking.

Raising awareness about both sides of the drinking equation – drinking behaviors and secondhand drinking.

No One Sets Out To Cause Secondhand Drinking And No One Sets Out To Cope With It In Harmful Ways

This science and this common term can help those causing and those coping learn what it takes to change.

Visit again next week to read more about this science in Part 3 of my Alcohol Awareness Month 2014 celebration!


©2014 Lisa Frederiksen – the above article shares portions from two upcoming books of mine. One is a book titled, Secondhand Drinking in Our Workplaces, Schools, Families and Communities The other is a very abbreviated version (from which this piece is taken) for a QuickSeries guide, titled, Secondhand Drinking: Prevention and Protection, to be published later this year for use by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Army, Navy, U.S. Forest Service and similar groups.

If you have questions or would like to talk further about secondhand drinking or my SHD consulting, training and presentation services for individuals, families and businesses, please give me a call at 650-362-3026 or email me at lisaf@BreakingTheCycles.com

In case you are reading this out of sequence, here are the links to all posts in this series:

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
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 BreakingTheCycles.com. 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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  1. You are so passionate about your work, Lisa. And I admire that! And, of course, your passion is big-time grounded in personal experience. I’ll admit it, prior to dialing-in to your work however long it’s been, I was not familiar with SHD. And so I’ve learned so much from your teaching. How ’bout it? The second-hand smoking movement has accomplished so much. And now it’s on to SHD. I only hope closed minds and stigma don’t cause problems (but somehow I’m thinking they may be formidable foes). What a great offering you bring for Alcohol Awareness Month. Thank you, ma’am…


    • I’m hoping the brain science we have nowadays can counter some of the stigma and closed minds because it sure is out there. I look at some of the comments on my videos, for example, and it’s staggering how mean, nasty negative some can be! I appreciate you stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Bill.

      • What are some of the “mean, nasty negative” comments directed at you ?
        Which are the most hurtful, even though you know that they don’t describe
        who you truly are ?
        Please give little weight to naysayers; so your light may continue
        to lift the hearts of and open dreaming for those burdened
        and darkened by secondhand drinking.
        Victims of SHD are paying inflated prices for others’ behavior.
        We all deserve a voice that can express anguish, confusion,
        and despondency….a soothing, hope-giving voice that can sing us into
        beautiful meadows where our love is accepted and
        our hearts warm in the glow of peace.
        Thank you, Lisa, for the compassion that fuels the passion for your mission….

  2. Great information here, Lisa. It is so important to get the message out all year long, and especially this month and you do an amazing job of spreading solid information. I think so many, myself included, go along, knowing they are miserable and that their life is falling apart, but they don’t really understand why and what they can do about it. Appreciate your hard work in this area!

    • Thanks, Cathy – and thanks for sharing your own experiences with this. I know, myself, it was hearing other people’s stories that really helped me do what I needed to do to finally get help for myself – secondhand drinking (and secondhand drugging, for that matter) really takes it toll.

  3. The life long impacts so SHD are painful to reconcile and live past in the recovering alcoholic/addict. Being able to look back and heal the generational impacts is crucial. I as the ACA still actively work I healing from deficits created in my upbringing as a child. These had an impact on my growth and my parenting. Add to that year of active drug and drink and my own parenting skills were not improved. Even in early recovery I was not all I wanted to be, and the fact that my children are so wonderful is their doing. Their brains have had time to heal these past few decades. I still work on letting go of guilt; it doesn’t help them to keep the focus on ME when the next level of healing is theirs. Thank you for keeping the discussion and awareness of SHD in the forefront where it belongs.

    • Thank YOU, Kyczy! As the parent on the secondhand drinking side, I’m afraid I was often more of a crazy person for my children to follow and cope with than the drinking persons in their lives. I, too, was wracked with guilt. That is another beauty of all this new research, though. We can all appreciate we were doing the best we could with what we knew and understood at the time. NO ONE sets out to cause drinking behaviors and NO ONE sets out to cope with them in unhealthy ways. Hopefully exposure to both sides of the drinking (or drugging) equation can help shatter the shame and break these cycles. I so appreciate you sharing your story and all the work YOU are doing in this field, as well.

  4. Lisa,

    Your ability to weave what was, is and what can be brings tears to my eyes. I write this because I know without a shadow of doubt the relational effects of my own substance use disorder in my family affected change including unnecessary divorce and childhood trauma. I also know our situation is an intergenerational legacy unfurling from in large part, an ignorance of the work you champion.

    The way you put together the interrelatedness of it all is tantamount to being my candidate for becoming a future Nobel laureate–it’s just that powerfully healing. Thank you!

    • OMGish Herby – thank you!!! I love your line, “I also know our situation is an intergenerational legacy unfurling from in large part, an ignorance of the work you champion.” It’s so very true. I will be forever grateful for the journey my life took, for even though it was rough, it and the 21st century research in information now available is what has helped me break the cycles for my daughters. As you well know, addiction is a developmental disease, and it often starts with the childhood trauma that results with ongoing exposure to secondhand drinking in childhood (both through the drinking parent and the non-drinking parent) changing a child’s brain circuitry during critical brain development stages. Then you throw in genetics and social environment and you have three of the five key risk factors before a child has their first drink…there goes the cycles. I appreciate you sharing your own experience and all the work YOU do in this field, as well.