Causes of Secondhand Drinking

Causes of Secondhand Drinking is Part 4 in this year’s series of posts to celebrate April as Alcohol Awareness Month. In case you missed them, here are links to the first three:

As explained in the first post, this year’s focus on Secondhand Drinking is to raise awareness about what happens to the 90 million Americans directly affected by Secondhand Drinking – the negative impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors – and the roughly two to three times that number indirectly affected.


Drinking Behaviors  – One of the Causes of Secondhand Drinking

The obvious and most direct cause of SHD is drinking behaviors (like Adam’s dad and Susan’s husband, for example). And the obvious cause of drinking behaviors is drinking alcohol, of course. But this is where things usually go sideways. This is when people offer all sorts of excuses for the drinking behaviors. They say things like: “He’s not an alcoholic!” or “He hadn’t eaten all day.” or “She’s such a nag, she provoked him.” Now here is the science of why none of that matters.

Ethanol Alcohol
Ethanol alcohol is a chemical in alcoholic beverages. It is what makes a person feel good when they drink alcohol. If a person drinks too much, this chemical changes how the brain works because it interrupts the electrical-chemical signaling process (remember the strand of holiday lights example). This is what then causes drinking behaviors.

Image 4: Standard Drink Sizes. L to R: 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounce of bourbon straight up, 1.5 ounce shot of vodka, 1.5 ounce of vodka on the rocks, 3.3 ounces of Champagne and 12 ounces of regular beer. Courtesy: Jessica Scott

This pictures shows common Standard Drink Sizes. L to R: 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounce of bourbon straight up, 1.5 ounce shot of vodka, 1.5 ounce of vodka on the rocks, 3.3 ounces of Champagne and 12 ounces of regular beer. Courtesy: Jessica ScottThe only way for the ethanol alcohol to leave the body is through the liver. Contrary to popular belief, a person cannot vomit, urinate or sweat it out.

Where the Liver Enters the Picture
The only way for the ethanol alcohol to leave the body is through the liver. Contrary to popular belief, a person cannot vomit, urinate or sweat it out.

ON AVERAGE, it takes enzymes in the liver about one hour to get rid of (metabolize) the ethanol alcohol in one standard drink. A standard drink means the amount of liquid contains the amount of ethanol alcohol. This is where the term “alcohol by volume” (ABV) comes into play.

Alcohol “Sitting” in the Brain Changes Behaviors
When a person drinks more alcohol than their liver can get rid of, the excess stays in the bloodstream and travels to body organs with lots of blood vessels. One such organ is the brain.

It “sits” in these organs waiting for its turn in the liver. While “sitting” in the brain, the alcohol chemically changes brain function – and not just in the limbic system!

How Much Is Too Much Depends on Your Brain?
Slide2Too much alcohol for your brain and liver and you slur your words, can’t think straight (as in think you are good to drive or insist on arguing some point), stumble, loose coordination, say mean, hurtful things, experience memory lapses or start a fight. This is all because the ethanol alcohol has chemically interrupted the way your brain works. Why keep saying, your brain?

The average of one hour to metabolize one standard drink can vary from one person to the next based on a number of variables. These variables include: gender, weight, stage of brain development (meaning teen brains handle alcohol differently) and whether taking medications. They also include: genetic differences, mental illness and stress. It is these variables that explain why one person drinking three drinks exhibits drinking behaviors and another person drinking the same three drinks does not.

Not only all of this, but because of the way the body processes alcohol (through the liver and not the digestive system), it means drinking water, eating a big meal or taking a walk around the block will not sober a person up. The only thing that does is time–an average of one hour per one standard drink. Six beers will take six hours.

But There is More – Pleasure / Reward Neural Networks
The reason ethanol alcohol makes a person feel good when they drink is because it taps the brain’s pleasure/reward neural networks. These are another “design” feature of the limbic system. Their purpose to give humans the feeling of pleasure for the activities they do so they do them again. These networks require dopamine neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) and dopamine receptors. They are the reason we humans experience joy, happiness and feel-good feelings. Back in the day, this “joy” was basically the good feelings for doing survival-type activities, like eating food and having sex (so we would reproduce).

Today, it is these same neural networks that allow us to have fun at a party, love being in love or cheer wildly when our favorite football teams wins. Without them, we don’t feel pleasure. If you drink in moderation (explained soon), the liver can keep up and nothing really changes. But if you drink more than that, you start changing neural networks throughout the brain. If you keep drinking heavily over time, the brain maps things associated with the activity as critical to survival because of the limbic system connection.

DISCLAIMER: The above explanation is not to excuse drinking behaviors. It is to help you protect yourself by understanding how they happen in the first place.

SHD Impacts and Behaviors – Another of the Causes of Secondhand Drinking

The less obvious, but no less harmful cause of SHD, is the behaviors of someone like Susan, Joanne and Adam, for example. These are the people whose own personal experiences with SHD changes their brains, which in turn can change their behaviors. The changing they experience is due in large part to the Fight-or-Flight Stress Response System (FFSRS) and the coping skills they map (details to be explained in next week’s post). 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 physical and mental health problems. These can include: sleep difficulties, migraines, anxiety, depression, stomach ailments, skin problems, obesity, and many other health conditions.

Their changed behaviors in turn spread SHD impacts to others. This is what happened to Adam’s teacher and classmates. It is what happened to Susan’s detective partner. And it is what happened to Joanne and Jackson’s family members.

This ripple effect of SHD can also be as indirect as the taxes paid by citizens to cover the costs of alcohol-related crimes (law enforcement, courts, jails and probation). Or the increased alcohol and SHD related health care costs born by a company or agency. Or it can be the social costs of child abuse, domestic violence and suicide paid by a community and those most directly involved.

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 5 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

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
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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  1. Thank you for this timely information, Lisa. I especially like this line, ” like many of the 90 million Americans directly affected by SHD, often experience physical and mental health problems.” It is an underlying problem that so many miss because they are so focused on their loved one’s drinking issues. It is important to fully understand the problem and then begin the process of taking care of yourself first. Appreciate all your valuable information that you consistently provide. Take care.

  2. I see this every day – everywhere I go. I listen to my students and hear the fundamental pain behind active addiction. It stems from this being a family disease- and the brain trauma and changes as a child seems to have laid the course for them becoming that which they despised most: active addiction. And the recovery takes so long because those wires in the brain have been damaged since BEFORE they started using. Thank you for this article- as always a huge resource for me and understanding why I still struggle – many years later.

    • It is such a vicious cycle as you’ve stated, Kyczy. And as you’ve also said, children can have 3 of the 5 key risk factors (childhood trauma, social environment and genetics) before they even have their first drink! (The other two risk factors are early use and mental illness.) Children from families with undiagnosed, unhealthily discussed or treated addiction who don’t become addicts, themselves, often go on to marry addicts / alcoholics because it’s how their brains are wired having mapped around coping with SHD as their brain developed. And, like you, I see it every day – everywhere I go, as well – that’s the vastness of the impacts of secondhand drinking (or secondhand drugging). Thanks so much for reading and adding your comment!

  3. One thing I appreciate about your content, Lisa, is your attention to continuity. In a world of a constant barrage of sound/video bites, E.G., “Well, I heard” and, “My uncle told me”…it’s extra refreshing in this sequenced presentation to see how all of this fits together and why it is so important to understand SHD–THIS way.

    When giving talks in the High Schools, invariably I get the sense that students are “tabula rasa’s” when it comes to being open to this information. The trouble is, and as you well know–the information is not organized and disseminated in this clear, concise, logical and comprehensive way. Busting the stigma and blame game and letting human beings know how their brain-bodies work, which of us or our families don’t need to know that?!

    You are a seminal thinker and gift to our communities. I plug your body of work wherever I go and will continue to do so until this critical mass of shift perception happens. And it’s gonna happen, thanks to wonderful human beings like you.

    • Sadly, I had to look up “tabula rasa’s” to see what it meant 🙂 – I agree, students are there when it comes to this information! I sure appreciate ALL your support and sharing of my work, Herby. Each of us bringing our expertise and take on this new research is sure to cause a critical mass of shift perception!

  4. Facts, facts, and nothing but the facts – you bring them, Lisa. Your efforts are akin to the movement to bring the dangers of second hand smoking to the fore. That’s powerful and important – especially during Alcohol Awareness Month. Oh, and I’ll tell you something else. This sort of education, offered by most anyone, is effective. But when it’s brought forth by someone who’s endured the manifestations, the impact is so much more powerful. It’s your passion that makes it all work, Lisa. Thank You…

    • I’ve been thinking about this facts, facts, nothing but facts approach, Bill, and think I need to lighten up a bit. I know I get a bit overboard from time-to-time because of my personal experiences with all of this… but it can also put people off. As always – I appreciate you stopping by and adding your comment – your work is invaluable, so it’s nice for readers to find your resources when they visit.

  5. Lisa, thanks again for such an informative and easy to understand post. Love the part about the science now helping those effected by the behavior of others as well as those ‘doing’ the behaviors! Your work is invaluable!!