Daniel Bradford is an assistant professor at Oregon State University and a researcher at the newly-established Lab of Biology and Emotion of Addiction Via Experimental and Reproducible Science (BEAVERS). This month, the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Clinical Psychological Science published a study that Bradford co-authored about the effects of alcohol consumption on fear responses.
Bradford and a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted the study at the University of Miami. They recruited 128 participants between the ages of 21 and 35 who did not report alcohol abuse. They gave some participants cocktails and others mocktails; the group that received alcohol had an average blood-alcohol of .07%.
The participants were then warned of a mild, upcoming shock to the finger. The warnings varied in specificity: some gave the exact size of the shock, some gave a range, and some gave no additional information at all.
The researchers found that alcohol consumption reduced stress in participants across the board, but the effect was most pronounced when the size of the shock was unknown. They also found that anticipation of the shock was more stressful to participants than the shock itself.
Bradford explains: “If you tell someone they’re going to get a low shock or a high shock, or you say that it can’t be any higher than ‘X,’ people still have a stronger physiological response when they don’t know how big it’s going to be, even when they know that it can’t be any bigger than the biggest number you told them.”
This research suggests that alcohol consumption disproportionately affects our capacity to respond to stressors with which we are not already familiar. This is relevant to the nature of addiction.
[Text Wrapping Break]“If some people use a drug or alcohol to reduce their stress enough times and to enough extent, then some people will start to have what seems like a change in their physiology,” Bradford said. “Their physiology gets used to having that drug on board to reduce their stress, instead of the normal processes we have on board to reduce our stress, so over time, your body doesn’t do those natural processes. It doesn’t happen for everyone, but it is a big component of addiction for some people.”