Effects of Acute Social Stress on Alcohol Consumption in Healthy Subjects


  • This research was supported by DA02812; the General Clinical Research Center (MO1RR00055); and the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT).

  • AHV Söderpalm is now at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Göteborg, Sweden.

H. de Wit, Department of Psychiatry, University of Chicago, MC3077, 5841 South Maryland Avenue, Chicago, IL 60615; Fax: 773-834-7698; E-mail: hdew@midway.uchicago.edu


Background: There has been renewed interest in interactions between stress and use of drugs and alcohol. Although there is evidence that stress increases drug use in human drug users and in laboratory animals, the processes by which stress affects drug-motivated behavior are not understood. Here we examined the effects of an acute social stressor (performing a mental arithmetic task in front of an audience) on consumption of ethanol or placebo beverages in healthy social drinkers.

Methods: Thirty-seven men and women, ages 21–35, were randomly assigned to a placebo (n= 15) or ethanol group (n= 22). Subjects participated in two sessions, one with stress (Trier Social Stress Test) the other without stress. In each session, immediately after the stress or no-stress period, subjects consumed the first dose (placebo or 0.3 g/kg of ethanol for men or 0.2 g/kg for women). Then, subjects were allowed to choose up to six more beverages (0.1 g/kg each for the ethanol group or placebo beverages for the placebo group). Measures included percentage of beverage consumed, salivary cortisol level, heart rate, blood pressure, and subjective ratings of mood and drug effect.

Results: Subjects in both the placebo and ethanol groups consumed significantly more of their beverages after stress, compared to no stress. Stress increased anxiety, uneasiness, and produced some stimulant-like effects and, in the ethanol group, it dampened some of the acute subjective effects of ethanol. The direct physiologic and mood effects of the stress were fairly short-lived.

Conclusions: It is concluded that acute stress may produce a modest increase in alcohol consumption in healthy, nonproblem social drinkers but that this increase is not directly related to the pharmacological effects of the drug. Nonpharmacological factors may include expectancies, thirst, or nonspecific facilitation of ongoing behaviors.