Your Brain on Stress & Drinking

Substance abuse can result from stress for those with less active amygdalas

(RxWiki News) Why do people drink when they’re stressed? And why do some people stop after a drink or two and others let things turn into problem drinking?

A recent study scanned the brains of 200 college students and gave them surveys about drinking and stress.

The study’s findings showed how the brain’s survival instincts kick in to prevent problem drinking or not kick in and allow it to happen.

"Talk to a therapist about problem drinking."

Yuliya Nikolova, graduate student researcher in the laboratory of NeuroGenetics, and Ahmad Hariri, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, researched the brain’s understanding of stress and drinking.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls basic survival instincts like reacting to stressors and threats.

The ventral striatum is often called the 'reward center' - it's the part of the brain that creates pleasure feelings from drinking or drugs.

For the study, 200 Duke University students, already enrolled in a neurogenetics study where they had their brains scanned, filled out surveys to assess links between stress and drinking.

Surveys found links between:

  • Threat-related amygdala reactivity
  • Reward-related ventral striatum reactivity
  • Recent stressors from school, work and life

Results showed people with higher reward reactivity had higher levels of problem drinking when they encountered stress unless their amygdala’s threat reactivity was triggered.

Researchers took this to mean that the brain understands when a drink to take the edge off after a stressful day turns into problem drinking and engages the amygdala’s threat assessment.

That is to say if a person has a very reactive ventral striatum and a somewhat unreactive amygdala, problem drinking may occur in reaction to stressful situations.

The opposite would be if a person had an under reactive ventral striatum and a reactive amygdala, drinking would not turn into problem drinking when stressed.

Dr. Hariri said, “Imagine the push and pull of opposing drives when a mouse confronts a hunk of cheese in a trap. Too much drive for the cheese and too little fear of the trap leads to one dead mouse.”

Authors recommended these findings may help healthcare professionals identify individuals at high risk for problem drinking during high-stress times and design treatment programs and coping mechanisms around that knowledge. 

This study was published in November in Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders.

Funding was supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Student Research fellowship and Duke University.

No conflicts of interest were found.

Review Date: 
November 20, 2012