The role of stress-reactivity, stress-recovery and risky decision-making in psychosocial stress-induced alcohol consumption in social drinkers

James M. Clay, Matthew O. Parker

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Rationale - Chronic alcohol misuse can escalate into alcohol use disorder (AUD). The causal mechanisms through which recreational social drinking develops into compulsive uncontrolled alcohol misuse are multifaceted. For example, stress is an important risk factor that influences alcohol craving in both healthy and addicted individuals. In addition, those that are high in impulsivity/risk taking drink more and are at greater risk of developing addiction. At present, however, it is not possible accurately to predict those at risk of escalation in alcohol use, or of developing AUD.

Objectives - The aim of this study was to investigate how underlying physiological and personality traits affect stress-induced craving for, and consumption of, alcohol, in a sample of social drinkers. The primary hypothesis was that impulsivity/risk-taking would modulate stress-induced alcohol craving and consumption.

Methods - Thirty-nine participants (22 male and 17 female; mean age = 23.92 years [SD = 4.90]) were randomly allocated to ‘stress’ and ‘no-stress’ groups; in the stress group, participants took part in the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). Participants completed several questionnaires and computer tasks in order to assess prior alcohol use, impulsivity/risk-taking, stress-reactivity, craving and physiological biomarkers of stress. Finally, participants completed a voluntary drinking task, in which increasing numbers of presses on a computer keyboard were reinforced with 5-ml shots of 37% ABV vodka (plus mixer).

Results - Participants exposed to the TSST showed an increase in craving following the stressor. Several factors predicted voluntary drinking, including risky decision making, slow HR recovery from stress, poor vagal tone during recovery from stress and greater stress reactivity. Surprisingly, we found no correlation between craving and consumption.

- Our data suggest that variation in physiological stress parameters and poor decision-making abilities increase risk of stress-induced alcohol consumption. This may provide a useful translational framework through which we can further study early predictive markers for the shift between controlled recreational drinking to uncontrolled alcohol misuse, including AUD.
Original languageEnglish
Early online date12 Sept 2018
Publication statusEarly online - 12 Sept 2018


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