Does Difficulty Recognizing Emotions Lead to Increased Risks for Alcohol Problems?
Addiction specialists and researchers know that people affected by diagnosable alcohol problems commonly have difficulty controlling their behaviors and emotional states. In some cases, emotional difficulties may also include a relative inability to differentiate emotions. In a study scheduled for publication in October 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of South Dakota assessed the impact of poor emotion recognition on the chances that a young adult alcohol consumer will go on to develop diagnosable drinking problems.
There are two basic forms of diagnosable alcohol problems: alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction or alcoholism. People affected by alcohol abuse experience some sort of significant personal or social harm as a result of their habitual drinking behaviors, but don’t have a physical need to drink alcohol. Conversely, people with alcoholism do have a physical need to keep drinking. In addition to a dysfunctional pattern of behavior stemming from this need, they also commonly experience specific symptoms such as prominent alcohol cravings, a diminishing sensitivity to the effects of drinking and the appearance of mild to severe withdrawal effects when they don’t get their accustomed amount of alcohol. Instead of existing separately, many of the symptoms of alcohol abuse and alcoholism exist on a continuum of potential drinking outcomes. For this reason, doctors in the U.S. now officially diagnose a condition called alcohol use disorder instead of diagnosing independent cases of alcohol abuse or alcoholism.
All human beings experience a range of emotions that can be generally characterized as “positive” or “negative” influences on mental well-being. Broadly speaking, positive emotions (joy, gratitude, hope, etc.) tend to have a beneficial effect on psychological health. Conversely, when present frequently or persistently, negative emotions (sadness, fear, guilt, etc.) tend to have a harmful effect on psychological health. Most people learn how to tell the difference between basic emotional states as they pass through various stages of childhood and adolescence. However, emotional recognition skills are not uniformly developed, even within a single individual. In some cases, adults have age-inappropriate problems distinguishing between the emotions they feel at various points in time. Depending on the individual, such problems may appear only in relation to certain emotional states or may appear more globally and produce widespread effects in a range of emotional circumstances.
Emotions and Drinking Problems
In the study slated for publication in Addictive Behaviors, the University of South Dakota researchers used an examination of 102 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 to investigate the connection between emotion recognition difficulties and the odds of developing diagnosable alcohol problems. All of the young adults enrolled in the study habitually consumed either heavy or moderate amounts of alcohol. For each individual, the researchers conducted tests designed to uncover the presence of drinking motivated by positive emotional states and drinking motivated by negative emotional states. They also explored each participant’s ability to distinguish between various positive emotions, as well as their ability to distinguish between various negative emotions.
After completing their analysis of the testing results, the researchers concluded that the drinking-related effects of an inability to distinguish negative emotional states differ from the drinking-related effects of an inability to distinguish positive emotional states. They specifically linked a failure to accurately tell the difference between negative emotions to increased risks for involvement in unusually impulsive behavior, which in turn leads to increased risks for developing alcohol problems. On the other hand, the researchers concluded, the relationship between positive emotions and drinking is more complicated. Some young adults clearly drink more alcohol when in a good mood. However, this link between drinking and positive states of mind is equally strong whether or not a person has a fully developed ability to tell the difference between various positive emotions.
The study’s authors note that poor recognition of positive emotions may actually play a role in increasing the risks for alcohol problems in young adults. However, since even young adults with good emotion recognition skills can increase their alcohol intake when in positive states of mind, there is no easy way to determine the specific effects of poor positive emotion recognition. Apart from these issues, the authors emphasize the clearer link between poor recognition of negative emotional states and increased alcohol-related risk.