Anxiety as a Predictor of Alcoholism

Individuals struggling with an anxiety disorder may have greater alcohol cravings and drink more heavily than people experiencing high levels of stress, according to a recent study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Researchers studied people with a personal history of alcohol abuse to determine the effects of anxiety and stress on alcohol-related emotions and behaviors.

Alcohol Use Disorders in the United States

  • Alcohol is the fourth-leading preventable cause of death in America.
  • According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 88,000 people die annually because of excessive drinking.
  • The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 15 million US adults met the criteria for an AUD diagnosis.
  • However, just 1.3 million people received AUD treatment at a specialized facility – less than 1 in 10.

Does Anxiety Lead to Alcoholism?

The study followed 87 adults meeting the criteria for an AUD.  Participants were evaluated for their:

  • Anxiety levels
  • Perceived stress
  • Sensitivity to anxiety

“Anxiety sensitivity” is the fear of the emotions and sensations commonly associated with anxiety. In some ways, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because individuals with higher levels of anxiety sensitivity are more likely to develop anxiety.

Testing for Cravings, Anxiety, and Stress

30 study participants were placed in a medically-supervised alcohol abstinence program. Twice daily, their cravings for alcohol were assessed.

On the fourth day, participants were given two tasks that could potentially trigger anxiety or stress – a math test and speaking before a group.

Immediately before and after each task, participants were asked about their alcohol cravings. Researchers also measured participants’ cortisol levels – the hormone associated with elevated stress.

  • Participants with higher levels of anxiety sensitivity were found to be more prone to drinking heavily and to have higher scores on clinical measures for AUD.
  • Individuals with high levels of anxiety consumed less alcohol overall, but had higher scores on other AUD tests.
  • Both anxiety sensitivity and anxiety – but not stress – were associated with stronger and more frequent alcohol cravings.
  • People with higher anxiety levels also had higher cortisol levels during early alcohol withdrawal.

If you feel that you or a loved one might have a problem with alcohol abuse, take our brief self quiz to find out if it’s time to seek help.

What Does All This Mean?

These findings highlight the fact that anxiety disorders can play a part in the development of or worsening of problematic drinking. It also shows the necessity of comprehensive treatment that addresses both anxiety and AUD concurrently, rather than separately.

Lasting Recovery outpatient alcohol rehab in San Diego specializes in the treatment of dual diagnoses of co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders. If you need help, call today for a confidential assessment.

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