Why can some people control themselves from drinking too much while others go on to make fools of themselves or destroy their lives?
Sometimes the tendency to drink excessively may be more than just a case of escaping from problems or too much partying. The likelihood for alcoholism has been linked by scientific research to childhood stress.
Now, stress is not all that bad. In fact, it is necessary for survival as the right amount of pressure helps a person to think and act better in the face of difficult situations we will encounter throughout life. Cortisol, our main stress hormone plays a key role in the body’s “fight-or-flight” response by increasing our body’s available energy and nutrient supplies to our muscles so we can respond with quickness and efficiency.
So if too much stress is bad for us, where do we draw the line? According to research published by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the benefits of stress stops when it is ‘severe enough to overwhelm a child’s ability to cope effectively’.
Too much stress suffered over a long period can result to ‘a variety of short- and long-term negative health effects.’ It can disrupt the development of the brain in early life, and also impair the functioning of two body systems that play a vital role in developing a physically and emotionally healthy human being—the nervous and immune systems.
An article written by Dr. Steve Bressert for Psych Central (a website providing the latest news and research about psychological disorders, treatments and medication) adds that prolonged stress suffered as early as infancy could permanently change the way our stress hormones respond and how we react to stressors such as when drinking alcohol.
Wait...did you say drinking alcohol is stressful? In the short term it makes you relaxed, but if you continue to drink while the stress is ongoing (which is most likely the case as alcohol will not actually solve the problem) it increases the possibility that you’ll drink more...and more as a means of coping, till it leads to dependence.
Alcohol and brain chemistry
I’ve mentioned earlier that the occasional stress is an inevitable fact of life and can even be healthy for us. The body’s expected reaction after the threat is over is to gradually decrease cortisol levels until we return to our normal state. But for chronic stress sufferers or long-term heavy drinkers, their body struggles to return to its physiological state ofbalance. As the demands increase on their body’s systems, it sets a new (lower) balance point, resulting in a less effective body functioning.
One such effect is on brain chemistry. Since the balance is now tilted, when alcoholics experience stress, they may experience higher anxiety levels than non-alcoholics as their brains demand the release of higher levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. Cortisol is also linked to the brain’s “pleasure” systems, which is why a heavy drinker with higher-than-average cortisol levels need to drink more than before in order to achieve the same effect. In addition, cortisol plays a role in learning and memory (what a very busy hormone!), which is why our heavy drinker is more inclined to make drinking a habit and has an increased tendency of a relapse.
And oh, did I forget to mention why some alcoholics don’t seem to eat much, yet have large bellies? Cortisol causes the body to crave for high-fat foods AND tells it to put excess body fat in the abdomen, that’s why.
The deciding factor
You may be thinking that a lot of people experienced difficulties (broken family, poverty, war and famine, etc.) when they were young but didn’t turn out to be alcoholics or drug addicts as adults.
A person’s resilience, or the ability to cope with stress is influenced by several factors in the environment. These factors may help offset the effects of physiological changes that happened in early childhood.
Dr. Bressert’s article mentions that the strength of the relationship between stress and drinking depends on whether alternative coping mechanisms and social supports are available.
A study published in the National Institutes of Health also indicate “that mediating factors such as gene-environment interactions and family and peer relationships are important for resilience.” Another research published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism credits positive thinking, an optimistic attitude, problem solving and planning as the characteristics of resilient people.