Martinez and Scalzo Explore the Relationship Between Alcohol Consumption and Stress

On Wednesday, April 26, Assistant Professor of Psychology Julia Martinez and alumnus April Scalzo ’16 delivered a lecture titled, “Drink More, Stress Less?” Scalzo and Martinez began investigating the relationship between alcohol and stress for Scalzo’s senior thesis and are currently in the process of having their findings published in the ACPA Journal of College Student Development. 

Scalzo spoke to what drew her to this area of study. 

“I thought [this research] was really important because, first of all, I am a Colgate alumnus. I’ve been a part of the drinking environment, and I know how stressful this school is,” Scalzo said. 

Although their research specifically focused on the stress that drives alcohol consumption, Scalzo and Martinez opened the lecture by considering the big question of why people drink to reduce stress: “Can alcohol be considered a real medicine?”

The medicinal properties of alcohol have been utilized for centuries. In the Civil War era, alcohol was used as a painkiller for wounded soldiers.

“[Soldiers] would get really drunk before these very gruesome amputations [to numb the pain],” Scalzo said. 

Alcohol has also been historically utilized as a topical medicine. 

“There may be some people in this room with grandparents who tell stories of when you would take a piece of cloth, dip it in whiskey and put it in a baby’s mouth as a pain reliever,” Martinez said. 

While the pain-numbing properties of alcohol are relatively well-known, whether alcohol can actually reduce stress is understood poorly. Sophomore Liv Castro attended the lecture and spoke to this question. 

“We, as college students, often equate alcohol with stress relievers,” Castro said. 

Interestingly, Martinez validated these preconceived notions from a neurochemical perspective. Through structural similarities, alcohol acts as an agonist of GABA receptors, which are associated with eliciting a “calming” effect. 

“So it’s like alcohol is a key that allows more calming in the brain,” Martinez said. 

However, despite the fact that alcohol has proven to elicit this calming response, the “expectancy theory” questions whether the stress-relieving properties of alcohol are more of a cultural construction than a scientific phenomenon. Studies have shown that the effects of alcohol can be reproduced merely through expectations. 

“I expect alcohol to do certain things to me to the point where I don’t even need alcohol to do these things,” Martinez said. 

Whether or not the consumption of alcohol is capable of relieving stress, many individuals, and particularly college students, seem to view alcohol as a means of dealing with stress, which is exactly where Scalzo’s and Martinez’s study comes into play. Scalzo’s senior thesis investigated what types of anxiety are uniquely driving college students’ drinking intentions.

Scalzo and Martinez examined a number of factors that may contribute to a college student’s desire to drink. For example, the pair posed the question, “does anxiety encourage alcohol consumption?”

In order to resolve this question, verbal and performance IQ tests were performed in an environment intended to emulate a “pressure-cooker college scenario.” 

“And this is where Ali [was] really good at freaking people out,” Martinez said. 

By implementing time restrictions, cognitively challenging the participants and providing constant reminders that test results “will be compared with all of your peers,” Scalzo effectively stressed out her research participants and then evaluated their desire to drink. 

But no significant correlation was found between test anxiety and drinking

intentions. Nor was there any correlation found with clinical anxiety or gender. 

In fact, the only statistically significant factor identified was “FoMo,” or “Fear of Missing Out.” In other words, college students chose to consume alcohol because they feared missing out on social opportunities. But is the social pressure associated with FoMo contributing to an unhealthy drinking culture? Senior Emi Foster attended the lecture and spoke to her understanding of the role of “FoMo” in Colgate’s drinking culture. 

“It’s clearly a problem that feeling like you’re missing out on time with friends can result in unhealthy alcohol consumption,” Foster said. 

Despite the fact that FoMo is known as a driving force of alcohol consumption in the drinking sphere, there is currently research on the scientific undertones of FoMo or what can be done to reduce its associated stress. 

Martinez and Scalzo suggest that reducing social media may alleviate the social anxiety associated with FoMo. 

“That’s really where the research needs to be headed,” Martinez said. 

With the publication of Martinez and Scalzo’s paper and numerous others expected to follow in the near future, we hope to gain a better understanding of what stressors are driving college students to drink and whether or not alcohol successfully alleviates that stress.