Blackouts: What they are and how to avoid them
Updated: May 7
It has happened to the best of us. We start drinking, we remember getting to the bar and that annoying song was playing. We remember ordering a drink and seeing that guy from work…and then we wake up the next morning.
We do not feel so great, maybe a headache, maybe nausea, definitely thirsty. We wonder, how did I get here? Why am I wearing two different shoes? Where did I get this panda head? What the hell happened last night?
Black outs can happen to anyone, but several different factors are at play here. Certainly, what we drank and how much matters, but how fast we consumed those drinks matters to. Binge drinking frequently leads to blackouts.
For many people, black outs are unsettling and not desirable. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to minimize the likelihood of a blackout happening to you.
How does our memory work?
Essentially a blackout is not remembering a period in which we were highly intoxicated. There are two components to our memory, short and long-term memories. We have three different kinds of long-term memories.
1) Abstract memories, which are also referred to as semantic memories (you know, your book learnin’). For example, knowing who the 13th president was or what Na means on the periodic table.
2) Autobiographical memories, which are memories about things that happened to you. For example, attending a concert.
3) Others types of memories include skills learning and conditioned responses. For example, knowing how to tie your shoes and knowing what to do when a fire alarm sounds.
Being intoxicated does not really interfere with the retrieval of our long-term memories, nor does it really affect our ability to store short-term memories. However, where our memory takes a hit when we are drinking heavily is the transfer of memories from short-term to long- term memory. The part of our brain called the hippocampus is responsible for this process. Those song lyrics you learned last night? The name of the stranger that became your new best friend? If you drank a lot, odds are good those memories are gone.
Memories on alcohol
Low levels of intoxication are not likely to have any impact on your memories. Get pretty drunk and you might experience brownouts or partial blackouts, where you have pieces or fragments from the night before. Some people confuse blackouts with passing out. Passing out is essentially drunk sleeping. A blackout means you are awake and conscious; you just do not remember it.
(An important note: alcohol depresses many of our vital functions. Do not leave someone alone to ‘sleep it off’. Stay with them, keep an eye on them and be ready to assist if they need to vomit or they stop breathing).
A rapid increase of your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is more likely to trigger a blackout than a high BAC that took the scenic route. So, if you down a couple shots quickly on an empty stomach, you are more likely to get to a blackout state than if you had the same number of shots spread out over two hours after eating.
1. Reconsider drinking games. I know, I know, they can be fun. They can also raise our BAC fast. If you are going to play, consider taking breaks.
2. Eat first! Our first drink passes from the stomach to the bloodstream, bypassing the intestine. This means a rapid effect from the first drink, especially on an empty stomach.
3. Rest before drinking. Being sleep deprived can make blackouts more likely…and make it more difficult to recover from a night of drinking.
4. Drink water. Sometimes we over imbibe because we are hot and/or thirsty. Be well hydrated before you start drinking. If it is hot, have something non-alcoholic handy alongside your drink.
5. Change your drink. Maybe weaker drinks are better for you. However, if you down them too fast, maybe stronger drinks will take you longer to consume. For some people avoiding hard liquor is key. See what works for you.
6. Slow your roll. Putting a little more time between your drinks can make a big difference. Take a food break or mix in something non-alcoholic. Some people will even set a timer to help them space out their drinks.
7. Drink in a familiar, comfortable place. Drinking in unfamiliar places can reduce our tolerance. Alcohol, like opioids and marijuana are very set and setting dependent.
8. Alcohol does not play well with others. Avoid mixing alcohol with other central nervous system depressants (benzodiazepines, opioids). Alcohol and cocaine is a bad mix and even a lot of over-the-counter medications and non-narcotic prescription medications can cause serious problems.
Support if you need it
Some people can easily make changes to their drinking, while others struggle. If your drinking feels hard to manage, is causing you problems, or you think you may have an alcohol use disorder, support is available. Whether you want to just talk about your drinking, begin making changes or work toward abstinence, Substance Use Therapy is here to meet you where you are. Whatever you are facing, you don’t have to face it alone.
Anderson, K. (2010). How to Change Your Drinking. HAMS Harm Reduction Network.
Denning, P., & Little, J. (2017). Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide to Controlling Your Drug and Alcohol Use. The Guilford Press.
About the Author:
Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, gambling, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.