Anxiety Increases Risk for Alcohol Problems

Posted on October 24th, 2014
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

Anxiety is a mental state characterized by a prominent sense of fear, dread or unease. Some people have an unusually high level of sensitivity to this state that can significantly increase the odds of developing a diagnosable mental health condition called an anxiety disorder. In a study scheduled for publication in 2014 in the journal Addiction, researchers from two U.S. universities explored the impact that heightened anxiety sensitivity and the motivation to use alcohol as a coping mechanism have on the chances that an adult will developing serious alcohol-related problems.

Anxiety Sensitivity

All of us naturally feel anxiety at one time or another. When present in limited amounts or in certain situations, this unpleasant emotional state can actually contribute to the overall maintenance of a sense of health and well-being. However, when present frequently or in large amounts, anxiety can easily impair a person’s ability to feel well or carry out a fulfilling daily routine. People with an unusually high level of anxiety sensitivity experience fear or dread whenever they’re affected by any potentially arousing sensations. Underlying this reaction is typically a belief that arousal (whether sexual or non-sexual in nature) produces a range of severely negative consequences that can include banishment from social interaction or even loss of life.

By increasing the intensity of anxious feelings, high anxiety sensitivity may at least partially account for the onset of several diagnosable anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia (social anxiety disorder), a more focused form of phobia called specific phobia and panic disorder. Anxiety sensitivity may also at least partially account for the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder, a related condition previously classified as an anxiety disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.

Drinking as a Coping Mechanism

All alcohol consumers have a reason for their involvement in drinking, whether or not this reason rises to the level of consciousness. Some public health experts and addiction specialists divide the motivations for alcohol intake into one of four primary categories: coping motivations, conformity motivations, social motivations and enhancement motivations. A coping motivation centers on the use of alcohol to avoid dealing directly with unpleasant emotional states or external circumstances. A conformity motivation centers on the use of alcohol as part of an attempt to go along with the expectations of one’s peers or larger segments of society. A social motivation centers on the use of alcohol as part of a desire to interact socially and establish good relationships with others. An enhancement motivation centers on the use of alcohol as a means of increasing pleasant feelings or improving enjoyment of social situations.

Impact on Alcohol Problems

In the study slated for publication in Addiction, researchers from the University of Houston and Florida State University used information gathered from 523 adults to evaluate the connection between high anxiety sensitivity, a coping motivation for drinking and the presence of serious alcohol problems in any given individual. The researchers initiated this project to test a hypothesis that links anxiety sensitivity to the onset of potentially diagnosable depression or anxiety, and also links the presence of depression or anxiety to the desire to use alcohol as a coping mechanism. All of the adults enrolled in the study smoked cigarettes; their average age was roughly 37. The researchers asked each individual to complete screening tools designed to assess anxiety sensitivity, as well as the presence of any depression or anxiety symptoms, reasons for getting involved in alcohol consumption and the presence of problematic alcohol use.

After analyzing their data, the researchers concluded that there is a step-by-step connection between anxiety sensitivity, the presence of generalized anxiety, the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety and the onset of problematic alcohol intake. They established a similar chained connection between anxiety sensitivity, depression, the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism and the onset of problematic drinking. In addition, the researchers concluded that a social motivation for alcohol use can also form part of a causal chain that starts with high anxiety sensitivity and ends with exposure to alcohol problems. Overall, the study’s authors found that anxiety sensitivity is an indirect but significant originating factor in the development of potentially diagnosable problems with alcohol abuse or alcoholism.

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