Studies indicate that many people drink as a means of coping with modern life and its accompanying economic stress, job stress and marital discord. Today’s fast-paced society offers little in the way of social support. While a drink after work or with dinner can be pleasurable and safe and is commonplace, people with excessive or chronic stress often drink to excess.
Whether an individual drinks to excess in response to stress appears to depend on early childhood experiences and the individual’s previous drinking behavior. Prolonged stress in infancy may permanently alter the hormonal stress response and subsequent reactions to new stressors, including alcohol consumption. Animal studies have helped us to understand the relationship between child-rearing and stress and vulnerability to alcohol abuse. Monkeys who were reared by peers, consume twice as much alcohol as monkeys who are mother-reared. Adult rats handled for the first three weeks of life demonstrate markedly reduced hormonal responses to a variety of stressors compared with rats not handled during this time.
In humans, Cloninger reported an association between certain types of alcoholism and adverse early childhood experiences. High levels of stress may influence drinking frequency and quantity. This relationship between stress and drinking even is stronger when alternative coping mechanisms and social supports are lacking. Finally, when individuals believe that alcohol will help to reduce the stress in their lives, alcohol is most likely to be used in response to stress. Drinking appears to follow stress but some evidence also links excessive drinking to the anticipation of a major stress or even during times of stress.
A clear association between stress, drinking behavior and the development of alcoholism in humans has yet to be established. Stress may be well understood from the point of view of brain events and hormonal response, but it appears that what is stressful to one person is not always stressful to another. Furthermore, stress response among people with a strong family history of alcohol dependence and also those with a personal history of alcohol dependence is not as similar as we might think to those without these risk factors.
Researchers have found that animals which have been bred to prefer alcohol rather than water have a different physiological response to stress than animals that do not prefer alcohol. Alcohol may be more reinforcing and “therapeutic,” making dependence more likely among the most vulnerable. While this is speculation, in the patient with alcohol dependence there often is a clearer connection between stress and alcohol relapse.
If you interview alcoholics who have relapsed, they often will describe chronic life stressors as causing their alcohol relapse. Stress makes relapse more likely when it cannot be controlled by the person because of their coping skills, additional psychiatric and physical problems, and lack of social support. Stress-related relapse is most likely among alcoholics who do not attend meetings or those who do not avoid people, places and things associated with their drinking.