How Alcoholism Can Affect Communication Even After Sobriety

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How Alcoholism Can Affect Communication Even After Sobriety

By Kelly Burch 08/14/18

The voices of people with alcoholism were perceived as “less expressive,” “rougher,” and “more flat” in a new study.

Image: 
person holding an alcoholic beverage

It’s no secret that alcoholism and other substance use disorders can take a huge toll on communication. People who are addicted have the reputation of being unreliable, forgetful or unorganized in their communication.

However, a new study suggests that alcoholism may physically change a person’s ability to communicate via speech, and that those changes last even after a person gets sober.

A new study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found that people who were alcoholics have trouble using pitch to communicate the emotion behind their statements.

For the study, people in recovery were recorded saying a sentence, as were people in a control group who did not have a history of alcoholism. The recordings were then played for a group of volunteers. The listeners had more trouble distinguishing the intended emotion in the recordings by people with alcoholism.

In addition, the voices of people with alcoholism were perceived as “less expressive,” “rougher,” and “more flat.”

This can lead to trouble communicating, since the same words can have vastly different meanings depending on the tone and pitch that they are spoken with. 

“These results suggest that emotional communication difficulties can persist long after alcoholics have quit drinking,” the study authors wrote.

In speaking with Healthline, Silke Paulmann, a cognitive sciences professor at the University of Essex and leader of the study, said that there is a physical reason for at least some of the communication difficulties that many people with alcoholism and their loved ones experience. 

“Our data clearly indicate that they can modulate pitch, but do so less effectively,” she said to Healthline

The study did not examine why the changes occur, but Paulmann said that it is likely due to changes either in the vocal chords or in the brain caused by alcoholism. The right side of the brain controls pitch and can be damaged by drinking too much alcohol. 

“Heavy drinking has been linked to brain atrophy in the right hemisphere,” she said to Healthline. “We don’t have scans of our participants, but if their brain has been affected by their drinking history, this may explain the differences as well.”

Speech therapy could potentially help people with alcoholism who are in recovery overcome this communication issue. However, Paulmann said that just being aware of the issue, and talking about it with friends and family, can also make a big difference. 

“On the receiver’s end, some of the communication problems in families might be less severe if the parties involved understand that it is not indifference that leads to ‘less expressive’ reactions,” she told Healthline.

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