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Drinking to Quiet Anxiety

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WebMD Health News

Aug. 11, 2000 -- A cool beer sounds good on a hot summer day ... wine is fine at dinnertime ... a margarita would be sublime, with lime. People's tastes in spirits are vastly varied, as are their reasons for drinking. What type of mood is likely to inspire us to drink? Are we more likely to drink when we're happy, bored, sad -- or nervous? If drinking is indeed a habit to calm the nerves, it could indicate a bigger problem, a new study from the French Bordeaux wine country suggests.

In analyzing the many moods that coincide with drinking, author Joel D. Swendsen, PhD, a psychology researcher at the University of Bordeaux II, writes that nervousness was the only negative mood that caused people to drink more alcohol later in the day, even more so than sadness. His study suggests the association could lead some people, especially men, to use alcohol to "self-medicate" so they don't feel nervous anymore.

In fact, "men were more likely than women to consume alcohol ... [reporting] that they could have 'really used a drink' if they had been nervous earlier in the day," he writes in a recent issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Swendsen's study involved 100 men and women -- average age of 34 -- who drank at least three times a week. None had problems with alcohol, or a mood disorder, or a family history of problem drinking.

With the aid of a hand-held computer, they recorded their moods throughout each day. Three times a day, for 30 days, they received an audible prompt from the computer. At each signal, they were to indicate their mood -- whether active, peppy, happy, relaxed, quiet, bored, sad, or nervous -- on the computer.

They also recorded virtually every drink they had. On the nights a party loomed ahead, a computer prompt every hour "told" them to record their drinks and the type of drink: regular, light, or low-alcohol beer, five types of wine, three types of liquor as well as brandy, cordials, and liqueur -- and how much they drank.

Every evening, each person rated -- on an eight-point scale -- the intensity of his or her desire to drink during the day. Choices of statements ranged from "I felt I could really use a drink" to "the idea of drinking was appealing."

Researchers found that significant numbers of people drank when either feeling happy (at a party) or in a quiet mood -- but that did not indicate impending problems. However, the study found that people who were nervous drank more and this seemed to reduce their anxiety.

And while many women in the study used alcohol to quell their nerves, men did so more consistently -- and found it more effective than did women.

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