Many people, including clinicians, researchers, and social and problem drinkers believe that drinking alcohol is somewhat effective as a temporary stress reliever. The relaxing effect of alcohol on the central nervous system, its disinhibiting and empowering effects on social impulses, and its perceived beneficial action on physical and emotional pain are often suggested as reasons why people begin and maintain their drinking, despite its abuse potential, side effects, and medium- to long-term ill effects on health. Conger (1951) proposed the Tension Reduction Hypothesis, which posits that alcohol can reduce tension and that people learn to drink alcohol to avoid or reduce unpleasant stress. Clinical observations and studies appear to support this theory.
Individual differences in the effects of alcohol on stress
Individual differences in stress-reducing effects of alcohol vary greatly. Where one individual may feel immediate relaxation from a relatively small amount of alcohol, others find that the initial effect of drinking actually increases their level of arousal. Gender, personality traits, drinking history, and a family history of alcoholism are factors that play a role in these very different responses. Individuals whose personality is characterized by sensation seeking or impulsivity traits are at increased risk for developing alcohol-related problems. Some researchers have suggested alcohol produces enhanced anxiolytic effects on these personalities, and thus increases the reinforcement value of drinking. Although no uniformity of results has been shown in these studies, they offer at least some support for this hypothesis.
From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, several experimental studies analyzed the effects of alcohol on stress among alcoholic participants. Although these studies were impressive for their intensive monitoring of participants over extended periods of time, the reliability of the results was limited by the small number of participants. The most reliable and valid studies confirmed an association between alcohol consumption and improved emotional states, e.g., reduction of stress levels, among these alcoholic participants.
Situational factors in stress reduction by alcohol
Situational or transient circumstances may modulate the effects of alcohol on stress. Alcohol appears to reduce stress more frequently when consumed while experiencing a pleasant, distracting activity such as a party or watching television, less so if consumed without distraction.
There also appears to be a temporal relationship between drinking and the experience of a stressor. Alcohol consumed after a stressor has occurred, e.g., upon returning home after a stressful day, appears to be less effective in reducing stress. On the other hand, if alcohol is consumed prior to experiencing the stressor, e.g., drinking just prior to attending a party, its relaxing effects appear to be more prominent.
Cognitive stress-reducing effects of alcohol
Other hypotheses attribute the anxiety and stress-reducing effect of alcohol to its pharmacological effects on information processing. One theory views alcohol as an agent that narrows an individual’s perception of immediate stress cues and reduces cognitive abstracting capacity. This mechanism of action has the result of restricting attention to the most proximal and immediate aspects of experience. In other words, alcohol reduces the range of awareness (and thus of anxiety and worry) to such an extent that the perception of stressors is greatly reduced.
How might alcohol reduce stress?
Alcohol affects the autonomic nervous system as well as the neuroendocrine system, in particular the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) pathway that is responsible for the mobilization of the organism during the stress reaction. The HPA axis is also instrumental in regulating immune protection by stimulating the production of cytokines that control inflammatory process and fight infection by pathogens.
The multifarious avenues of communication among the neuroendocrine, immune, and nervous systems are so complex and ramified that alcohol impacts all systems, in both feed-forward and feedback directions. Alcohol is one of the few substances that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier, which permits it to have direct access to brain cells—with significant deleterious effects. Alcohol increases the resting heart rate, but it can also produce a paradoxical decrease in blood pressure in both humans and animals, much like stress, whose impact on heart rate and blood pressure is inconsistent.
The bottom line on stress reduction and alcohol
A relationship between alcohol and the physiological arousal of stress is undeniable, although the nature of this association is complex, controversial and far less than positive. The most reliable research has shown that the effects of alcohol on stress vary greatly depending on the psychophysiological characteristics of the individuals studied, their environment, the alcohol dose, the nature of the stressor, and the timing of the intake of alcohol and the stressful experience. Thus, while we can say that stress, alcohol, and alcohol addiction can form an interrelated complex, the nature of this relationship cannot be construed as ultimately beneficial. The relative ease and frequency of addiction to alcohol, the ineffectiveness of many strategies for prevention and treatment of alcohol abuse, and the variable benefits of alcohol as a relaxant pose a significant challenge to the widespread idea that alcohol may be an effective stress reliever.