Alcohol and Blackouts


If you are a college student who chooses to drink, there is a 50/50 chance that you have experienced at least one blackout, according to research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Recent research is finding that blackouts are much more common among college students than originally thought. But what are blackouts, and how can people avoid them?

What are blackouts?

Blackouts (sometimes called “alcohol-related amnesia”) are due to alcohol’s property of affecting many parts of the brain at once. In addition to impairing the parts of the brain responsible for judgment, motor control, speech, and perception, alcohol can also affect how memories are formed and stored. When consumed quickly and in large amounts, alcohol does this by impairing the functioning of the hippocampus, the “memory consolidation” center of the brain.

When the hippocampus is impaired by alcohol, people report waking up in the morning and having no recollection of what happened the night before. This is due to their inability to make new memories while under the influence of too much alcohol, consumed too quickly. Similarly to a blackout, a brownout occurs when someone can only remember fragmented bits and pieces of the time that they were under the influence of alcohol.

Blackouts and brownouts are a form of amnesia, and are different from ‘passing out’, where a person loses consciousness due to alcohol.

Okay, I know what blackouts are. So, are they a bad thing?

Well, college students generally cite blackouts from alcohol as a negative result of drinking that they would like to avoid. It’s just more fun to remember what happened at a party or a social event!

Also, because alcohol affects the brain in many ways at once, a “blackout” happens at the same time heavy drinkers are experiencing poor decision-making, poor judgment, and a loss of motor control as a result of the alcohol.

This combination sometimes results in heavy drinkers doing or saying something they may later regret, and they cannot remember what happened. The feeling of a “loss of control” or “not knowing what happened” or “acting stupid” is generally what students say they want to avoid. Students have reported participating in a wide range of high-risk behaviors they could not remember, including vandalism, unprotected sex, and driving.

In addition, the research performed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that blackouts were a strong predictor of emergency room visits among college students. So if people are drinking to the point of experiencing a blackout, they are also more at risk of hurting themselves severely enough to necessitate a trip to the emergency room.

Blackouts may also have long-term effects on the brain. As aging reduces the reserve brain capacity of individuals they become more at risk for dementia and memory loss, and that risk may be increased by repeated blackouts over a long period of time.

How can I make sure I don’t blackout?

Choosing to not drink alcohol is a sure-fire way to never have a blackout. But, if you choose to drink alcohol, the best way to avoid blackouts is by making sure your BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) doesn’t increase too rapidly. This means finding ways to allow more time between drinks for your body to process the alcohol.

It’s important to find a system for pacing your drinking that works for you, and allows you to have control over the amount of alcohol you consume in a night so you can stay safe. Here are some tips for not experiencing blackouts:

1)      sip your beverage slowly
2)      be aware of how you feel before making a decision about the next drink
3)      avoid shots
4)       avoid drinking games
5)      alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks
6)      know how much alcohol is in your drink
7)      don’t drink from communal sources of alcohol
8)       set a limit for yourself
9)      set a time to stop drinking and switch to water
10)    only bring a set amount of cash for drinks
11)   know your limit
12)   hold a drink in your hand (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) to avoid being bought/offered another drink
13)   limit the amount of alcohol you buy to only what you would like to consume that night
14)   Tell a friend how much you plan on drinking that night

If you are concerned about your or a friend’s drinking, feel to set up an appointment to meet with an Alcohol and Other Drug Intervention Specialist for BASICS or with Counseling and Psychological Services to speak with a licensed professional therapist.

As always, be safe and take care of yourselves, Tar Heels!

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