People behave differently when under the influence of alcohol. Some might get angry; others get more friendly. And still others might simply want to be alone and withdraw. Yet, no matter the person you turn into when you’re drinking, some people drink until they’re they blackout.

Having a blackout is not the same as passing out.  Aaron White, an assistant research professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center describes blacking out as experiencing a period of alcohol-induced amnesia. However, passing out is falling asleep from excessive drinking or drinking oneself unconscious. Someone can experience a blackout and be entirely awake. They can participate in conversations and drive. Sadly, those that are interacting with them may not be able to tell that that person is blacking out.

In 2002, White and his colleagues performed a study to determine the frequency of cases that lead to blackouts. White and his staff surveyed 772 undergraduates about their drinking. They specifically asked whether they had ever woken up after a night of drinking unable to remember things they did or places they went. This study revealed that 51% reported experiencing at least one blackout at some point in their lives, and 40% experienced a blackout in the 12 months before the survey.

Of course, the dangers of having a blackout is doing something that you later regret. These behaviors could be something as small as buying what you didn’t have the money for, having unwanted sex, or even killing five other people in an accident. In fact, this is precisely what happened with one gentleman who experienced a blackout on the night of July 4th in 1995. After drinking at a party, on the way home he crashed into a van full of people, five of whom died. This case sparked many studies on blackouts and why they occur.

One such study found that there are certain people that are more prone to blackouts than others. There are certain areas of the brain that are affected by drinking. Alcohol and other drugs affect these areas of the brain differently in different people. In particular, the areas of the brain involved in self-monitoring, attention, and memory are affected by the ingestion of alcohol. Yet, these parts of the brain are affected differently by different people, making some people more vulnerable to blackouts than others.

Blackouts can be incredibly dangerous because to others it may not appear that a person is experiencing a blackout. However, fortunately, there are other physical signs to indicate that the person is, at the very least, under the influence of alcohol and/or regularly abusing it. These signs include:

  • -Red/blood shot eyes
  • -Persistent cough
  • -Increased fatigue and/or sleep problems
  • -Changes in weight (increase or decrease)
  • -Unexplained injuries (could be caused by accidents that occur while drinking)
  • -Frequent headaches, nausea, sensitivity to sound, especially in the morning due to hangover
  • -Other drug use, including cigarette smoking
  • -Slurred speech or an inability to communicate effectively
  • -Lack of concentration

Other emotional and psychological signs of alcohol abuse can include:

  • -Withdrawal from family – spending more time alone away from family members and less communication.
  • -Loss of interest in previous hobbies/activities
  • -Depression
  • -Mood Swings – including irritability, quick to anger and overly defensive
  • -Change in the choice of friends/peer group – not introducing new friends to you
  • -Problems at school, such as falling grades, complaints from teachers/staff, reports of cutting class and absences.
  • -Problems with the law.
  • -Goes out with friends a lot or attends many parties.
  • -Secretive behavior, such as hiding things from you, locking bedroom door, not telling you who their friends are or where they are going.
  • -Lying

Blackouts can be incredibly dangerous for the person drinking as well as those nearby. If you know someone who drinks on a regular basis and you see any of the above signs, contact a mental health provider today.

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