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Keywords:

  • Alcohol Dependence;
  • Problem Drinking;
  • Stress;
  • Cortisol;
  • Heart Rate

Background

Recent research findings suggest that heavy alcohol use is associated with alterations of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis and autonomic nervous system function and that early abstinence is associated with blunted stress responsiveness.

Methods

This study investigated abstinent alcohol-dependent participants (AADs; n = 31), who had a drinking history of levels about 97 drinks per week (abstinence range: 2 weeks to 24 months), actively drinking problem drinkers (PRDs; n = 23), who reported drinking levels about 47 drinks per week and who were abstinent for at least 24 hours, and healthy control (HC) participants (n = 20). It was investigated how participants responded to a psychosocial stress task. All of them were exposed to a modified Trier Social Stress Test. Salivary cortisol, heart rate, skin conductance levels, and negative affect were assessed as stress indicators.

Results

AADs showed stress reactions comparable to HC participants, whereas active PRDs showed increased heart rate and cortisol stress responses. In the AAD group, duration of abstinence was positively related to cortisol stress responses.

Conclusions

Active PRDs showed increased responses to psychosocial stress. Results indicate that duration of abstinence is a key factor when analyzing and interpreting stress responses in alcohol abuse and dependence.