New research provides evidence that individuals who had lonely childhoods tend to be more reactive to stress, which in turn makes them more susceptible to alcohol-related problems. The findings have been published in Addictive Behaviors Reports.
“The Social Addictions Impulse Lab has a long history of studying stress and drinking too much,” explained Julie A. Patock-Peckham of Arizona State University, the lab’s director and the corresponding author of the new research. “We are interested in the examination of why some people drink beyond their own intentions for drinking despite facing potential very negative life consequences. The lab is very focused on studying pathways to impaired control over drinking which is drinking more and for longer periods of time than one originally intends.”
“My student, Sophia Berberian, was interested in the topic of loneliness prior to the pandemic and we were working with Federico Sanabria to collect translational data on social isolation on drinking. Dr. Sanabria uses mice in his studies and we typically use college students in ours. We basically were hoping to find a pathway from loneliness to impaired control over drinking through experiencing more perceived stress.”
“The lab has a general interest in studying early life experiences and how that influences our decisions to drink responsibly or not later on in life,” Patock-Peckham explained. “Much of the current work in the addictions has understudied women and therefore we are committed to studying questions to address health disparities due to sex differences.”
In the new study, 310 university students completed a 20-item questionnaire that measured feelings of social isolation and dissatisfaction with the quality of relationships in childhood. They also completed assessments of perceived stress, alcohol use, impaired control, and problematic alcohol outcomes. The researchers found that higher levels of loneliness as a child were indirectly related to more impaired control of alcohol use and more alcohol-related problems through greater stress.
In other words, those who reported feeling isolated from others before the age of 12 were more likely to report feeling nervous or stressed in the present. Those who reported greater stress, in turn, were more likely to agree with statements such as “I have difficulty limiting the amount I drink.” Perceived stress was also related to more problematic drinking outcomes, such as drunk driving or missing classes because of being hungover, especially among women.
“We did indeed find that stress serves as a mediating mechanism between being a lonely kid before the age of 12 and subsequent dysregulated alcohol use later on in one’s early adulthood,” Patock-Peckham told PsyPost.
She outlined some practical implications of the research: “If you are feeling stressed please find another outlet other than drinking because you are likely to drink too much especially if you are a woman. Also, it might be a good idea to make sure kids who went through the pandemic alone have a social outlet now. Childhood friendships matter and may buffer a slew of negative outcomes later on in life such as alcohol misuse.”
In a previous study, Patock-Peckham and her research team randomized 210 participants into different groups, with some experiencing a stressful situation and others a non-stressful situation. Half the participants received an alcoholic drink that was equivalent to three cocktails, and the other half received three non-alcoholic drinks. The participants then had unrestricted access to alcoholic drinks from the bar for 90 minutes.
“We are just coming off of a large federal grant from NIH/NIAA K01 AA024160-01A1 to study the impact of an acute stressor on social drinking behaviors in a simulated bar lab environment,” Patock-Peckham said. “We found women drink more during a free drinking period (ad libitum) when exposed to just the social evaluative stressor (Trier Social Stress Test), whereas men drink more if they received the Trier Social Stress Test in conjunction with three cocktails prior to the free drinking period.”
Because of issues related to COVID-19, the lab has started a fundraiser to continue its operations.
“We need to do more studies on the topic of loneliness, stress, and drinking too much with more longitudinal and experimental alcohol self-administration studies. This study is just a first look at this pattern of relationships. A basic alcohol self-administration study may cost as much as $800K to collect the data, so funding for this area is a great need. The Social Addictions Impulse Lab can do a lot of good for the world in general but staying funded is a challenge for us right now.”
“COVID-19 disruptions leave us in-between federal grants and the lab is at serious risk of closing down without more funding. We even had a student – Gage Reitzel – who will start at Brown University in the fall run a marathon to try to keep the lab open. The lab does a ton of work to assist minority and first generation college students reach their dreams.”
The study, “Does loneliness before the age of twelve indirectly affect impaired control over drinking, alcohol use, and problems through perceived stress?“, was authored by S. Berberian, J.A. Patock-Peckham, K. Guarino, T. Gupta, F. Sanabria, and F. Infurna.