Newswise — A study reported in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research has highlighted the link between emotional functioning and alcohol use. Previous research has shown that mood regulation is a core component of problematic drinking, and that emotions have a role in reinforcing repeated alcohol use – whether via the mood- and social-enhancing effects of alcohol (‘positive reinforcement’), or through drinking as a coping strategy to alleviate negative feelings of stress and anxiety (‘negative reinforcement’). According to theoretical models of addiction, alcohol reinforcement can act as a pathway to development of alcohol misuse and dependence over the longer-term. However, it is also important to understand the daily impact of emotional regulation and alcohol associations. In the latest study, researchers from the University of Central Florida examined snapshots of mood in college students in real time across drinking and non-drinking days, using a technique called ecological momentary assessment.

The 21-day study involved 74 students from a single Midwestern university. Alcohol screening at baseline indicated that most participants were heavy drinkers and were at risk of alcohol-related harm.  Using a tablet, participants completed up to ten random assessments of emotional functioning and alcohol use each day. Each emotional function assessment covered five positive mood states (excited, enthusiastic, energetic, happy, and joyful) and four negative mood states (anxiety, anger, stress, and sadness). The researchers calculated mood instability based on the difference in mood between one assessment and the next. Any day where alcohol was consumed was considered a drinking day.

On average, participants reported drinking on just under half of all study days, with a typical drinking start time of ~8.30pm. Using statistical modeling, the researchers revealed specific trajectories of mood through drinking and non-drinking days. Positive mood increased through the day in the lead up to a drinking event, particularly as the event approached, and continued to increase sharply after drinking initiation. This suggests anticipation of the positive effects of drinking, and of positive reinforcement after drinking has started. In contrast, the data indicated that negative mood was lower on drinking days than non-drinking days, and decreased throughout the day at a similar rate regardless of whether alcohol was consumed. This may suggest that people have less negative mood if they know they will be drinking that day. The most interesting results related to emotional instability: emotions remained fairly stable on non-drinking days, but on drinking days became increasingly unstable as the drinking event approached, before rapidly stabilizing after drinking started. This stabilization of mood with drinking is suggestive of negative reinforcement, which might lead to a greater propensity to drink for coping reasons and, over time, to addiction.  

These results emphasize the importance of mood dynamics for alcohol use. However, the researchers caution that the results do not prove a causal link between alcohol consumption and mood; it is possible that decisions to drink, made well before drinking initiation, establish daily mood on specific trajectories. The data suggest that psychological interventions that aim to stabilize emotional functioning through emotion regulation training, and that seek to reduce the positive anticipatory effects of drinking, could be effective in preventing alcohol-related harm.

Daily patterns of emotional functioning on drinking and non-drinking days

A.N. De Leon, R.D. Dvorak, M.P. Kramer, R. Peterson, D. Pinto, A.V. Leary, T.D. Magri (pages xxx).