Examining the Relationship Between Alcohol Intoxication, Stress Response and Tension Reduction Alcohol Expectancies
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Stress contributes to both the initiation and maintenance of drug use. Drug intake, specifically alcohol, may be reinforced under stressful conditions by reducing anxiety or tension. The pharmacological effects of alcohol, however, cannot account entirely for the tension-reducing experience of intoxication. This suggests that cognitive factors contribute to the stress-dampening effects of alcohol. This study examined this hypothesis by testing how tension-reduction alcohol expectancies moderate the relationship between stress and alcohol intoxication. Stress response was operationalized as an increase in subjective anxiety and impaired sustained attention. Verbal learning, which was hypothesized to not be impaired by the stressor, was used as a cognitive control. One hundred and nine undergraduate students were randomly assigned to one of five groups (low, medium or high dose alcohol; sober; or placebo). Following beverage consumption, participants completed cognitive tasks before and after the Trier Social Stress Test. Participants completed the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory – State upon arrival in the lab, as well as pre- and post-stressor. They also completed the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory – Trait and the College Drinking Influences Survey, which includes a Stress Reduction scale. Social stress did not hinder cognitive performance, whereas alcohol impaired sustained attention and verbal learning abilities. The stressor evoked a subjective stress response that was reduced by alcohol and the expectancy of alcohol (i.e., placebo). There was no evidence to suggest that tension reduction alcohol expectancies moderated this effect. These findings replicate alcohol’s ability to dampen a stress response and, furthermore, demonstrate that the expectancy of alcohol is as effective as the drug itself in reducing subjective response to stress. This study highlights the need for further research to elucidate which factors modulate the stress-dampening effect of alcohol in undergraduate students. This knowledge, in turn, could present an opportunity for screening and early interventions to circumvent problem drinking as alcohol consumption is used by this population to cope with stress.