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Female College Students Who Act Impulsively When Distressed Are at Higher Risk for Alcohol Issues

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An increasing number of female students entering into young adulthood who engage in heavy drinking behaviour are placing themselves at risk of developing alcohol use disorders (AUDs) as well as other harmful consequences like physical injuries and sexual assault. Previous research has shown college students drink more than other populations. There is a recent study on the influence of impulsivity-related traits and drinking motives on symptoms of alcohol dependence (AD) among college women. That study found that an impulsivity trait called ‘negative urgency’ predicted increases in AD symptoms.

Graduate student at the University of Georgia Monika Kardacz Stojek states that in the past 30 years, young women have been ‘catching up’ to young men when it comes to binge drinking.  Drinking habits are usually formed in young adulthood.  According to Stojek, if a young person gets into the habit of drinking heavily, it may be harder for them to break this habit into adulthood. There are also physiological differences between men and women.  Women tend to have more immediate and severe physical symptoms when they consume the same amount of alcohol as a binge drinking male peer in a shorter amount of time.

Excessive alcohol consumption among female college students have numerous and negative consequences like impaired academic performance, increased risk of injury in accidents, increased risk of sexual assault, and increased risk of death declared Gregory Smith, a university research professor and director of clinical training at the University of Kentucky. 

There are different ‘types’ of impulsivity, stated Stojek.  She and others in the study wanted to observe the effects of these different ‘types’ of AD symptoms. One case was to study the effects of acting impulsively while distressed or anxious versus the effects of sensation or pleasure seeking. They chose to study female students in their first semester of college because this is a time when development of drinking habits starts. Alcohol tends to be used as a social lubricant and used to initiate relationships. Within this risky atmosphere of excessive drink, personality traits play a role in swaying individuals’ behaviour. As a result, the first semester of college is when it is considered to be very informative developmental period to study the risk of problem drinking.

The researchers recruited 319 freshman females in their introductory psychology courses at a large south eastern university.  The amount of drinkers in this group totalled 235.  All participants in this study were given the S-MAST (Short-form Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test).  The S-MAST consists of 13 questions concerning AUD symptoms and drinking behaviour. 

The five influential traits of impulsive behaviour are positive urgency, negative urgency, lack of persistence, lack of deliberation, and sensation seeking.

“We found that negative urgency, an impulsivity trait which describes a tendency to act irresponsibly when experiencing negative emotions, increased symptoms of AD in young women across their first semester of college,” said Stojek. “Additionally, lack of deliberation, an impulsivity construct indicating acting without thinking, predicted increases in symptoms of AD across the first semester of college in young adult women. Finally, women who had high negative urgency and stated that they wanted to drink to alter emotional experiences (either to enhance positive feelings or get rid of negative ones) at the start of the semester, had the biggest increases in symptoms.”

According to Smith, the results of this study were very consistent compared to his personal clinical experiences. “Women who tend to act rashly when distressed, and who perceive drinking as helping them cope with distress, tend to end up with more alcohol related problems,” said Smith. In addition, women who are motivated to drink to enhance a positive experience, and who do not plan ahead may develop more alcohol-related issues. Based on Smith’s findings, college females who intend to drink to add to their experience, but plan ahead (i.e. agree to leave at specified time with their girlfriends) reduce the risk of sexual assault versus females who did not plan as their security was at risk.”

Both Smith and Stojek believe these results can be helpful in so many ways.

“The delineation of two interactive pathways that appear to influence risk even in the short-term provides a useful advance for both researchers and clinicians,” said Smith. “Clinicians can assess impulsivity-related traits and drinking motives and then fashion interventions most suited to the individual woman.”

“This study adds further clarity to the types of personality traits and motivational factors that are at play in increasing symptoms of AD in young adult females across a critical period of the first semester of college,” added Stojek.

“Female college students ought to plan ahead when they go out drinking in order to reduce their risk for alcohol associated problems,” cautions Smith.  Female students who tend to get impulsive when upset should seek help from counsellors or other mental health professionals on effective tools and strategies to avoid impulsive actions that can become destructive. Parents and college administrators cannot underestimate the dangers associated with binge drinking in college.”

Stojek agreed. “It seems that women who know that they tend to act without thinking when they are upset should be aware that they might be more at risk for negative consequences from drinking if they impulsively drink while in that negative mood,” she said.

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