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Impulsive College Women at Greater Risk for Alcohol Problems

Impulsivity traits associated with greater increase in alcohol dependence during their first semester.

Young woman partying-- by Jenara Nerenberg

The Gist

The college years are an important time in a young person's life, but the risks that come along with it, such as drinking-induced accidents, presents some troublesome situations. And new research appearing in the February 2013 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research says that young women who already show a tendency toward impulsive behavior when distressed are at particular risk of developing alcohol-related problems, such as alcohol dependency.

The findings from this research are critically relevant to college students, their parents, and school officials, because identifying such personality traits early means saving young women from lifetimes of alcohol-related complications.

The Expert Take

"Drinking habits often form in young adulthood, so if a young person gets into the habit of drinking heavily, it may be harder for her to break this habit as an adult. Additionally, because of physiological differences between men and women, women may have more immediate and severe physical symptoms if they consume as much alcohol as a binge-drinking male peer in a short amount of time," said study co-author Monika Kardacz Stojek.

According to Stojek, young adult women in their first semesters of college are increasingly engaging in heavy drinking, and those with an impulsivity-related trait called "negative urgency" are at greater risk of developing an alcohol dependence (AD).

"There are different 'types' of impulsivity and we wanted to examine the effects of these different types on AD symptoms," said Stojek. "We found that negative urgency, an impulsivity trait which describes a tendency to act rashly when experiencing negative emotions, predicted increases in symptoms of AD in young women across their first semester of college."

Lack of deliberation and acting without thinking also predicted development of AD symptoms. Those who expressed wanting to drink to enhance or forget certain feelings had the greatest increase in alcohol dependence symptoms. 

Source and Method

For this study, 319 female freshmen from a large southeastern U.S. university were recruited, of whom 235 were drinkers. All participants took the Short-form Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test (S-MAST), which has 13 questions about drinking behavior and alcohol-related disorder symptoms. The five impulsivity traits that were assessed from the beginning (and assessed again three months later) were: lack of deliberation, lack of persistence, sensation seeking, negative urgency, and positive urgency.

Results showed that negative urgency predicted increases in alcohol dependence symptoms in the participants' first semester of college.

"My clinical experience is very consistent with the findings of this study," said Smith. "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. Also, women who are motivated to drink to enhance a positive experience, and who lack deliberation—meaning they do not plan ahead—also end up with more alcohol-related problems."

The Takeaway

Women in college should pay particular attention to how they behave in general and under stress, and be cautious if and how they decide to drink alcohol. Social situations involving parties, cars, sexual relations, or other environments where sound judgment is critical can be problematic for those with high impulsivity. These kinds of situations can quickly lead to accidents and dangerous, unwanted outcomes. If necessary, women should seek out the help of counselors, mental health professionals, parents, or other support networks if they need help avoiding complicated situations involving drinking and decision-making. 

"College women should learn to plan ahead when they go drinking, in order to reduce their risk for problems," said co-author Gregory Smith. "Clinically, I have found that college women who intend to drink to enhance their experience, but who plan ahead and, for example, agree to leave with their girlfriends at a certain time, appear to be at reduced risk for sexual assault than women who do not plan ahead in ways that would increase their security."

Adds Stojek: "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."

Other Research

2008 study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence examines alcohol's influence on impulsivity and concludes that resulting impulsivity is often determined by the amount of alcohol consumed. A 2009 study in Behavioral Pharmacology also concludes that amount of alcohol consumed plays a direct role in ensuing impulsivity behaviors. The study also concludes that female binge drinking is rising fast and is approaching the same levels of male binge drinking in college. And a 2007 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs echoes the findings that greater impulsivity predicts alcohol problems among college students, and that failure to plan ahead plays a role in contributing to those problems.
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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research

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