Anxiety Sensitivity and Drinking Alcohol

Those Sensitive to Anxiety More Likely to Drink

Anxious Woman
Are You Sensitive to Anxiety?. © Getty Images

Do you experience anxiety symptoms when you find yourself in stressful situations? When things get stressful do you get "butterflies" in your stomach, experience rapid breathing or an increased heart rate?

If those symptoms sound familiar, you may have what some scientists call high anxiety sensitivity. And, if you are highly sensitive to stressful situations, you may want to avoid the temptation to relieve those symptoms by drinking alcohol.

Why? Because people who have high anxiety sensitivity and turn to alcohol to sooth that anxiety are highly likely to develop alcohol use disorders.

Everyone Experiences Some Anxiety

"People diagnosed with alcohol problems exhibit significantly higher levels of anxiety sensitivity than non-clinical populations," said Alan MacDonald in a news release, one of two first authors of the study. "Just as everyone experiences some degree of anxiety in their lives, almost everyone has some degree of anxiety sensitivity. However, people who have high anxiety sensitivity are people on the upper end of the continuum."

"Anxiety sensitive individuals are people who have a fear of anxiety, basically," said Robert Pihl, professor of psychology and psychiatry at McGill University. "It's kind of an anticipatory type response. This study helps us understand why these individuals are highly likely to become alcohol abusers.

Furthermore, the literature tells us that the abuse is not just about alcohol, it can involve anything that reduces that anticipatory anxiety."

Drinking to Sooth Anxiety

The researchers examined 102 subjects with no history of panic disorder. They were asked to hyperventilate for three minutes to induce anxiety-like symptoms.

They were given two doses of alcohol - some a high dose, some a low dose.

The participants were asked about their fearful thoughts, negative feelings, and physical sensations during the exercise.

More Alcohol Provided More Relief

The study compared the reactions of high anxiety sensitive participants to those of low anxiety sensitive participants:

  • The high sensitivity group had greater reduction in their fearful thoughts and negative feelings after the alcohol (both high and low dose) than the low sensitive group.
  • The high sensitive group found the alcohol dose more "soothing" than the low sensitive group.
  • The soothing effect of the alcohol became more pronounced for the high sensitive group the more they drank.

For the high anxiety sensitive group, more alcohol provided more relief from their anxiety sensations. Drinking to "cope" however, is a well-known marker for future alcohol abuse, the researchers said.

Focusing on 'Why'

"Our findings support the idea that high anxiety sensitive individuals may drink to cope with unpleasant sensations associated with anxiety, which could in turn lead to alcohol abuse," said MacDonald.

"Moreover, the more they drink, the greater the benefit they experience in terms of avoiding these unpleasant sensations."

"This may explain why high anxiety sensitive individuals report drinking to excess more frequently than the regular population," MacDonald said.

The researchers believe they opened a small window into why some people end up abusing alcohol and knowing why they do it can lead to knowing what to do about it.

High-Risk Group for Alcohol Problems

About one in seven people have a high degree of anxiety sensitivity, making them a large high-risk group for developing alcohol problems. If you recognize that you have high anxiety sensitivity, you may want to think twice before using alcohol to sooth those symptoms, the authors suggested.

"We can't look at these individuals as one kind of ubiquitous mass," Phili said. "When someone talks about 'alcoholism,' that doesn't really explain anything. That doesn't tell you 'why.' There are multiple reasons why things happen, and it's important to understand the reasons why before you get into any kind of treatment. Treatment should be specific to the 'why.'"


MacDonald, AB, et al. "Effects of Alcohol on the Response to Hyperventilation of Participants High and Low in Anxiety Sensitivity." Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research November 2000

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