How does stress influence drinking patterns?
Research and populations surveys have shown that persons under stress, particularly chronic stress, tend to exhibit unhealthy behaviors. Stressed persons drink more alcohol, smoke more, and eat less nutritious foods than non-stressed individuals. People drink in response to various types of stress, and the amount of drinking in response to stress is related to the severity of the life stressors and the lack of social support networks.

Can alcohol reduce the symptoms of stress?
While some research studies show that alcohol in low doses may lessen the body’s response to stressors, paradoxically, many studies show just the opposite effect- that alcohol actually increases the stress response, by stimulating production of the same hormones the body produces when under stress. These observations are particularly interesting given that most people report that they drink alcohol to reduce stress, and the explanation for this apparent contradiction remains unknown. It may be that the mild arousal effect of the stress hormones is not entirely unpleasant. Genetic variations in the ways our bodies respond to stress also likely play a role in how alcohol affects our bodies in stress situations.

Does stress cause alcoholism?
There is little evidence that stress leads to the development of true alcohol dependency, or alcoholism. However, stress is strongly associated with alcohol abuse- the misuse of alcohol as self-medication “therapy” for life stressors. Stress may also be associated with binge drinking in students and other populations. In already established alcoholics, stressful experiences may lead to relapse of the disease.

How do I know if I am addicted?
The U.S. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has put together a questionnaire to help people decide if they have a drinking problem. Included in the 26-item questionnaire are the following two questions:

  1. Do you occasionally drink heavily after a disappointment, a quarrel, or when the boss gives you a hard time?
  2. When you have trouble or feel under pressure, do you always drink more heavily than usual?

Answering yes to these questions is a warning sign for the early stages of alcohol dependence.

How can I get my drinking under control?
If you are using alcohol to alleviate symptoms of stress, try some healthier alternatives to help manage stress and reduce its symptoms. Exercise, improved nutrition, and relaxation and meditation techniques have all been proven effective in stress control and have other physical and mental health benefits as well. If you know you have a drinking problem, About Alcoholism Guide Buddy T offers advice in his article, “So you’ve decided to stop drinking.”

Other helpful resources:
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Web site includes online access to Alcohol Alerts, a series of publications about all aspects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Recommended Reading:
Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp. This thoughtful and insightful book gives an honest and brutal account of one woman’s struggle with alcoholism and provides background information about the disease of alcoholism, its causes, effects, and treatment options