Using Alcohol to Combat Stress

Stress is a part of everyday life. For many, responses to stress include irritability and a sense of being overwhelmed. Healthy ways to deal with stress include a balanced diet, exercise and adequate sleep. In some cases people self-medicate when either specific events or ongoing circumstances become too much to bear. During the holidays as family tensions and financial concerns tend to rear their heads this self-destructive behavior can become harmful. And what begins as an attempt at celebration can end with too much alcohol.

A study examined the ways in which alcohol is used as a response to stress among heavy drinkers and to see if women or men are more likely to drink as a way to cope.

The researchers began by recruiting 64 heavy drinkers, scoring at least a seven on the AUDIT measurement of alcohol consumption. The participants were asked to talk about two recent life events, with one a stressful event that was unresolved and the other a neutral or non-stressful event.

The researchers used the description of the events to create imagery exercises for the participants. The participants returned for a second session and listened to a description at each event as they viewed the imagery, one hour apart.

Before and following each of the imagery sessions the participants were given two questionnaires: the Alcohol Urge Questionnaire, which assesses alcohol craving on a seven-point scale, and the Differential Emotions Scale, which measured the mood of the participants.

The researchers used the information to analyze how stressful and neutral imagery affected the participants by gender to create mood and alcohol craving changes. The results showed that both men and women experienced an increased craving for alcohol after viewing the stressful imagery when compared with their reaction to viewing the neutral imagery, with a more dramatic change in the women.

Among women, there was an increase in negative mood following the viewing of the stressful images which led to alcohol cravings. This effect was not nearly as pronounced for males.

Several limitations may prevent the study’s findings from being applied in every situation. For instance, the study relied on self-report, and women may be more likely to report changes in mood when compared to men. The study also only included heavy drinkers, so the findings may not generalize to other types of drinkers. Heavy drinkers may be more likely to use alcohol as a way to self-medicate against stress.

While the imagery inspired by individual participants created a realistic experience that was relevant to each participant, it may limit the usefulness of the results because it was not standardized.

The findings, which show that women may be more likely to react to stress by craving alcohol, could lead to targeted efforts to reduce stress-related drinking among women. Interventions that seek to prevent alcohol abuse may require a focus on women who are dealing with a stressful life event.

Women in these situations could benefit from therapy or training that implements the development of coping skills for stress. They may also need a reminder of basic healthy practices that can reduce stress and may provide insulation against alcohol cravings, such as exercise and adequate sleep.