‘Negative Urgency’ Leads to Impulsiveness, Substance Abuse

Impulsiveness and Substance AbuseNegative emotion is a state of mind that typically causes distress and reduces the sense of equilibrium or well-being. People who constantly or repeatedly experience negative emotion have a personality trait that psychologists and other mental health experts sometimes refer to as neuroticism/negative emotionality. According to a study published in 2007 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the presence of negative emotionality can lead to an increased participation in reckless or impulsive behaviors. In turn, a high level of impulsivity significantly increases the risk of abusing alcohol and/or a variety of drugs.

Negative Emotion Basics

Negative emotions are not inherently harmful or damaging to human health. In fact, these emotions can play a positive role in a person’s mental life, Psychology Today explains. However, people who frequently experience intense negative emotions can develop a number of health problems, including increased risks for developing major depression or an anxiety disorder such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Examples of negative emotional states that can contribute to these and other risks include frustration, guilt, anger, shame, disgust, sadness and anxiousness.

Negative Emotions, Urgency and Impulsivity

Those affected by negative emotionality also sometimes develop a related personality trait called negative urgency, the authors of the study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence report. People with this trait tend to react to stressful situations by acting in a rash or reckless manner. In addition, people affected by negative urgency tend to have problems getting along with others or considering others’ feelings. They also typically have “neurotic” characteristics such as unusual self-consciousness and a marked tendency toward depressed or “down” moods. Negative urgency is one of the main factors in impulsive behavior or impulsivity, according to the authors of a study published in 2012 in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Other important factors in this behavior include tendencies to act without making plans, to not to follow up on any plans that do get made, and to actively seek out new thrills or sensations.

Impact on Substance Use

The authors of the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence examined the ways in which negativity and other impulsivity factors increase risks for developing an addiction to alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, and/or a variety of other substances of abuse. They concluded that people who develop addiction issues typically have unusually high levels of negative urgency, as well as unusually high tendencies to act without making plans and failure to follow up on existing plans. Of all these influences, negative urgency plays the biggest role.  Addicts with high levels of this urgency also have increased risks for severe substance-related mental and physical health problems, in addition to a variety of social, family, and legal problems. In a study published in 2012 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a team of researchers examined the connection between negative emotionality, amphetamine use, and alcohol consumption. According to the study’s authors, some people affected by negative emotionality are unusually sensitive to the effects of amphetamines.  Their use of amphetamines significantly increases their chances of developing a variety of drinking behaviors that contribute to alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Examples of these behaviors include an increase in overall alcohol intake, increased binge drinking episodes, and an increased tendency to drink up to or past the point of intoxication.


People affected by negative emotionality, impulsivity, and other problematic personality traits can learn to control these traits and reduce their participation in abusive drinking, according to the results of a study published in 2013 in the American Medical Association journal JAMA Psychiatry. During the study, a multinational team of researchers trained the staff of a high school in London, England in a number of techniques designed to offset the potentially damaging effects of personality traits and peer pressure in the school’s students. The staff used these techniques while working with a group of 1,200 students identified as “high-risk” for the future development of alcoholism. After going through two brief intervention sessions with the trained staff members, the at-risk students significantly decreased their participation in drinking patterns that contribute to alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism. Interestingly, when high-risk students decreased their dangerous drinking behaviors, they also further lowered the alcohol-related risks of their peers who already had smaller chances of developing alcoholism.

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