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Anxiety Sensitivity and Drinking Alcohol

Those Sensitive to Anxiety More Likely to Drink

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Updated December 24, 2007

People who experience anxiety in stressful situations are more likely to turn to alcohol to relieve their anxiety symptoms, according to research at Dalhousie University.

Those who experience symptoms such as "butterflies," rapid breathing, or an increased heart rate in the face of a stressful situation are described as having high anxiety sensitivity (AS), according to the study, and they are more likely to "sooth" their anxiety by drinking.

"People diagnosed with alcohol problems exhibit significantly higher levels of anxiety sensitivity than non-clinical populations," said Alan B. MacDonald in a news release, one of two first authors of the study. "Just as everyone experiences some degree of anxiety in their lives, almost everyone has some degree of anxiety sensitivity. However, people who have high anxiety sensitivity are people on the upper end of the continuum."

'Soothed' by Alcohol

"Anxiety sensitive individuals are people who have a fear of anxiety, basically," said Robert O. Pihl, professor of psychology and psychiatry at McGill University. "It's kind of an anticipatory type response. This study helps us understand why these individuals are highly likely to become alcohol abusers. Furthermore, the literature tells us that the abuse is not just about alcohol, it can involve anything that reduces that anticipatory anxiety."

In the study, published in the November 2000 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, participants were asked to hyperventilate for three minutes to induce anxiety-like symptoms. They were asked about their experience: fearful thoughts, negative feelings, and body sensations, such as an increased heart rate. Two doses of alcohol (high and low) were given to the participants.

After ingesting alcohol (both the high and low doses), high anxiety sensitive individuals showed much greater reductions in their fearful thoughts and negative feelings than the low AS participants. The high AS students not only found the alcohol more "soothing" than did their low AS counterparts, but this soothing effect became more pronounced the more they drank.

"In other words, more alcohol provided more relief for high AS individuals from their anxiety sensations. MacDonald said that "coping" as a reason for drinking is a well-known marker for future alcohol abuse," MacDonald said.

Focusing on 'Why'

"Our findings support the idea that high AS individuals may drink to cope with unpleasant sensations associated with anxiety, which could in turn lead to alcohol abuse," said MacDonald. "Moreover, the more they drink, the greater the benefit they experience in terms of avoiding these unpleasant sensations. This may explain why high AS individuals report drinking to excess more frequently than the regular population."

"Our findings have opened a small window into why some people may learn to abuse alcohol," said MacDonald. "Knowing why leads to knowing what to do about it. We know that about one in seven readers of this article may have a high degree of AS. We are not saying that all people with high AS will necessarily go on to abuse alcohol, but it does appear that they are a high-risk group. If a reader recognizes that they may have high AS, perhaps they should think twice about using alcohol to feel better about their anxiety symptoms."

"We can't look at these individuals as one kind of ubiquitous mass," Phili said. "When someone talks about 'alcoholism,' that doesn't really explain anything. That doesn't tell you 'why.' There are multiple reasons why things happen, and it's important to understand the reasons why before you get into any kind of treatment. Treatment should be specific to the 'why.'"

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