THE BLOG
07/31/2012 09:19 am ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

Alcohol Reduces Anxiety But Not Fear

Being in Porto, home of that famous mix of brandy and fermented grapes, I thought I would do a short post on the effects of alcohol on fear. It's well known that having a drink or two takes the edge off, reducing stress, but psychologists at the University of Wisconsin recently indicated that alcohol doesn't affect all types of stress. Consistent with animal studies in the past, psychologists Christine Moberg and John Curtin concluded that getting drunk reduces our anxiety, but not our fear, suggesting that these two emotions are somewhat distinct neurological processes.

The researchers demonstrated this by getting young adults drunk on 100-proof vodka mixed with juice. They then gave the boozed-up subjects a series of predictable and unpredictable shocks. The unpredictable shocks produced what the psychologists call anxiety because the students didn't know when the shock would come so they were left with that annoying feeling of uncertainty. The predictable shocks created flat-out fear because the students knew for sure that something painful was coming -- more like hearing a bear rustling in the bushes and knowing it's coming for you.

Result? The mixed drinks didn't change the students' fear (predictable shocks) but it did reduce their anxiety (unpredictable ones).

The study has other much more complex variables, which you can read all about here, but it may explain why we tend to drink more when we're stressed out about what will happen in the future. (Will I keep my job? Will Janet leave me? Will I do okay in the speech tomorrow?) But we don't generally reach for a flask in the middle of an emergency.

So how might this apply to a typical night out at a bar? We all know well that having a few shots reduces the anxiety of approaching a potential mate, e.g., cute girl, studly dude. After all, the potential mate's response is unpredictable -- anxiety. But when the cute girl's boyfriend (or perhaps studly dude's girlfriend) taps you on the shoulder and raises his (or her) fist -- a predictable cue -- good luck getting any benefit from those shots. Hopefully they'll help with the pain.

I should note, however, that other studies have found that continued use of alcohol to reduce stress ends up having a negative affect on stress and health. In the words Emma Childs, coauthor of a recent study on alcohol and stress at the University of Chicago, alcohol "may actually make a person's response to stress worse, and prolong recovery from a stressor."

In other words, use only in moderation (and I would personally stay away from the 100-proof vodka altogether). I'm going to go taste some port now.

For more by Jaimal Yogis, click here.

For more on Becoming Fearless, click here.

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