Stress & Alcohol: Strange bedfellows

“Stressed-out doesn’t come remotely close to describing how I’m feeling. I’ve had enough! It’s time to hit a watery-hole for some liquid relief.”

Hold on there, fella’! You may be making a huge mistake…

Our stressed-out friend is convinced a few belts are just what the doctor ordered in the face of what he’s dealing with.

But according to a new study, the relationship between stress and alcohol is a whole lot more complicated than he thinks. He may be asking for trouble.

The Study

The results of a new study, which will be appear in the October 2011 edition of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, are telling. Stress and alcohol are strange bedfellows.

According to the study’s corresponding author, Emma Childs of The University of Chicago…

“Anecdotal reports suggest that alcohol dampens the physiological or negative emotional effects of stress but this has been hard to demonstrate in the lab.”

“Another way that stress could increase drinking is by altering alcohol’s effects. For example, if stress reduces the intoxicating effects of alcohol, individuals may drink more alcohol to produce the same effect.”

Stress: The Body’s Reaction

Of paramount importance here is understanding how the body reacts to stress. According to Childs, there are very different physiological and emotional consequences along a time line after the onset of stress.

What she’s saying is, the all too familiar ramped-up heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol production, and feelings of tension – and diminished mood – all go down and resolve at different rates.

Enter the alcohol. Its impact will vary in accordance to when it was ingested along the time line.

How the Study Worked

The participants were 25 healthy men who in two sessions performed a stressful public speaking task – and a non-stressful control task.

Using a public speaking task was a natural because it’s known to ramp-up physiological signs of stress, and it’s a common stress-generating activity outside of the lab.

After each task, the participants were administered an infusion containing the same amount of alcohol you’d find in two drinks – and a placebo.

One group of participants received the infusion within one minute of task completion, followed by placebo 30 minutes later. The other group received the placebo first, then the alcohol.

Physiological and subjective manifestations were then measured at repeated intervals.

Strange Bedfellows

So the work was done and the results were ready. According to Childs…

“The results demonstrated bi-directional relationships between alcohol and stress. Alcohol can change the way that the body deals with stress: it can decrease the hormone cortisol which the body releases to respond to stress, and it can prolong the feelings of tension produced by the stress.”

“Stress can also change how alcohol makes a person feel: it can reduce the pleasant effects of alcohol or increase craving for more alcohol.”

The study revealed alcohol decreased the hormonal (cortisol) response to stress. But it also extended the negative subjective experience of the stressful event.

And how ’bout this discovery? Stress definitely decreases the pleasant effects of alcohol.

So it seems as though alcohol and stress have an unusual “bi-directional” relationship. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

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The Wrap

The study tells us turning to alcohol in response to stress is a very dicey proposition. In fact, not only could it make your response to stress worse, it may lengthen your recovery from the stressful event.

Even more alarming – yes, stress alters the way alcohol makes you feel. And that, in turn, may well lead to increasing the likelihood of drinking even more of it.

Let’s close with the words of Emma Childs…

“Stress responses are beneficial in that they help us to react to adverse events. By altering the way that our bodies deal with stress, we may be increasing the risks of developing stress-related diseases, not the least of which is alcohol addiction.”

Here are a couple of articles that’ll come in handy…

Burnout Isn’t Stressed Out Isn’t Depressed   Coping with Stress

Would you like to see a list of all chipur articles on the biology of the mood and anxiety disorders? Just click away…