Undergraduate students and risk factors for excessive drinking
Nay, Sylvia Anna
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Excessive drinking is associated with significant negative consequences for individuals, and enormous costs to the healthcare system and economy. Around the world, university students comprise a particularly vulnerable population with respect to excessive drinking. This demographic group exhibits heavier drinking patterns than older adults and like-aged peers who do not attend university. Given the widespread negative fallout associated with alcohol misuse, the identification of pre-existing factors that are associated with increased vulnerability for this behaviour is critically important, especially among high-risk groups such as undergraduates. The goal of the current dissertation was to explore, among undergraduates, individual differences in intrapersonal factors that confer risk for excessive drinking, particularly disinhibited behaviour and stress – factors that have been robustly associated with the development of alcohol use disorder. Study 1 examined whether impulsivity, sensation seeking, and anxiety sensitivity were related to escalated drinking behaviour in the transition between high school and the first year of undergraduate studies. Our findings demonstrated that individual differences in trait impulsivity prospectively predicted increases in hazardous drinking and, at a trend level, drinking intensity. Study 2 assessed whether exposure to acute stress increases voluntary alcohol intake and, further, whether intake of alcohol relates to individual differences in anxiety. Consistent with our hypotheses, psychosocial stress increased voluntary intake of alcohol, but not placebo or non-alcoholic beverages. In contrast, ad libitum alcohol intake was not related to individual differences in anxiety. Finally, Study 3 examined whether alcohol induces biochemical stress responses in a non-clinical population and, moreover, whether this effect relates to individual differences in impulsivity and subjective alcohol responses. Our data demonstrated that alcohol intoxication was associated with increases in biochemical markers of stress, namely cortisol and alpha amylase, among males. Biochemical responses were highest among individuals who reported the greatest stimulant effects of alcohol. Additionally, trait impulsivity was positively correlated with cortisol responses to alcohol. Taken together, the current studies underscore the importance of individual differences in behavioural disinhibition (e.g., impulsivity) on the subjective effects of alcohol and drinking behaviour among undergraduates. Clinical implications and avenues for future research are discussed.