Here’s How Stress Recalibrates Your Brain, Driving Alcohol Consumption

Here’s How Stress Recalibrates Your Brain, Driving Alcohol Consumption

Stress creates feelings that we sometimes deal with in maladaptive ways. A long wait at the post office might stress you so much that you choose to stay home with pizza and a movie. Caring for an ailing parent might start you on a path of drinking every night.

Responses to stress vary but fall within a set of norms. Feeling compelled to go out for a drink is the kind of responses we accept without question. It’s natural to want to “indulge” after a bad day, conventional thinking goes. But is there more to the relationship between stress and our behaviors than meets the eye?

According to a new study published in Neuron, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Researchers studied rats’ brains after experiencing acute stress, comparing the amount of alcohol-laced sugar water the stressed rats drank following their experience to a control group that experienced no stress. Predictably, rats who endured acute stress within the last twenty-four hours consumed a higher amount of alcoholic sugar water than their more relaxed counterparts.

The reason the stressed rats consumed more alcohol may come as a surprise. The stressed rats drank more alcohol-sugar water because their brains had actually been altered on a neurological level by their stress experience. Researchers found that specific neurons in the brain’s reward center that previously would have encouraged the rat to moderate their intake of methanol-laced sugar water were flipped, incentivizing the rat to drink as much as possible. By drinking more of the alcohol-sugar solution, the rats weren’t trying to alleviate a specific need, like sleeping for a long time after exhaustive activity. Instead, the rats were taking marching orders from neural impulses that instructed them to keep drinking.

Exactly why stress can flip our neurological instructions from “drink occasionally” to “drink as much as possible” is still being studied. The researchers in this study suggested that neurons’ capability to flip on and off could be a biological trait adapted over time to help us get what we need to overcome a physical trauma.

This research is crucial when it comes to understanding and treating addiction. The best addiction treatment modalities incorporate the growing scientific consensus that suggests addiction is a neurological disorder at its core. In light of these findings trauma, a high-intensity stress experience can alter the brain’s chemistry to mistakenly encourage the abuse of substances like heroin and alcohol that dump large amounts of serotonin into the brain.

The neurological basis for addiction works in conjunction with the myriad personal reasons why people pick up, abuse, and ultimately become addicted to drugs. Someone who has developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may find that abusing drugs is the only way they have at their disposal to handle other symptoms related to the trauma, and the brain is wired to encourage this.

The next time you’re in a stressful situation and find yourself reaching for a drink, consider another coping mechanism that can make you feel better or process what you’re going through. A little redirection can help you promote positive brain growth and avoid the treadmill of addiction.

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About Constance Scharff PhD