Throughout history, there is a belief that alcohol consumption can reduce the emotional response in a stressful situation. But is that scientifically proven? A recent meta-analysis1, published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, looked at more than 50 experiments and indeed found some evidence that alcohol reduces the emotional response to a stressor. However, many questions remain.
What is already known? There is limited research on the relation between alcohol consumption and stress. A review2 concludes that there is some evidence that moderate alcohol consumption may reduce stress and tension, and increases sociability and the feeling of well-being. But it stresses that it is difficult to prove causality, because it can be part of a complex system.
What does this study add? This is the first meta-analysis that studies the stress response dampening hypothesis. It only includes experimental studies and also at the type of stressor.
Stress response dampening hypothesis
The hypothesis that this analysis investigates, is the so-called stress response dampening hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that the negative emotional response to a stressor should be less for people that drank alcohol beforehand compared to sober individuals.
But this meta-analysis takes it a step further, and also tries to prove (or disprove) theories that explain the high variety in effects that alcohol induces in stressful situations. Five important theories are tested:
- Stressors that are more self-relevant (for example giving a speech about personal flaws) would have a larger reduction in stress response than stressors that are less self-relevant (for example electrical shocks).
- The reduction in stress response is larger when information about the stressor is introduced after alcohol is consumed and absorbed.
- Stressors that are more ambiguous (for example unpredictable shocks) would have larger effects than less ambiguous stressors (for example the countdown to an electric shock).
- The effect would be larger for social stressors.
- The effect would be greater for those with a family history of alcoholism.
Decreased stress response
When comparing the emotional response before and after a stressor, the negative emotional response was slightly weaker for people that just drank alcohol compared to sober people. However, this difference was not statistically significant. But when only looking at the emotional reaction after a stressor, the participants that consumed alcohol had a significantly lower emotional response than the sober participants.
No effect due to type of stressor found
Unfortunately, no proof was found for any of the proposed theories that the effect of alcohol depends on the type of stressor or family history of alcoholism. However, only very few studies used true social interaction. The authors propose that this might be the reason that no difference in effect could be detected for social stressors.
Focus on negative affect
This meta-analysis only focusses on the negative emotions due to a stressful situation. They advise that further studies should also focus on the positive affect due to alcohol, to further understand the relation between alcohol and stress.
- Differentiated between types of stressors
- High heterogeneity in effects across studies (unexpected, given the experimental control of these studies)
- Focus on negative emotional response
1 Bresin, K. (2019). A meta-analytic review of laboratory studies testing the alcohol stress response dampening hypothesis. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 33(7), 581.
2 Peele S, and Brodsky A (2000). Exploring psychological benefits associated with moderate alcohol use: a necessary corrective to assessments of drinking outcomes? Drug Alcohol Depend, 60(3):221-247.
Fotocredits: ‘stress’ from JESHOOTS-com