BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A study conducted in the University at Buffalo
Department of Psychology has found that college students who drink
to cope with anxiety may experience more negative alcohol-related
consequences than peers who drink for other reasons.
Undergraduate Research Assistant Justin Kimber used data from a
larger study by Jennifer Read, PhD, UB professor of psychology.
That study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse
and Alcoholism (NIDA). Guided by Read, Kimber examined the
pathway between Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and
drinking-to-cope behavior among college students relative to the
number of negative alcohol-related consequences they reported. Such
consequences include blacking out, lower grades, missing class,
Kimber says, “I considered two things: the fact that
self-medication theory suggests that one reason highly anxious
people may drink is to cope with their symptoms, and that previous
research showing that highly anxious college students tend to
report more negative alcohol-related consequences.
“My hypothesis was that the reason high-anxiety students
experience more negative alcohol-related consequences than other
students,” he says, “is that they tend to self-medicate
with alcohol to cope with uncomfortable GAD symptoms like chronic
worrying, trouble sleeping, nervousness, stress and tension.
“The study is important,” Kimber says,
“because GAD affects 1-to-2 percent of college students in
the U.S or somewhere between 207,000 and 415,000 college students
who currently suffer from symptoms of generalized anxiety
disorder.” (Figures extrapolated from 2010 U.S. Census
projections of 2012 college enrollment at http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/12statab/educ.pdf.)
“I am interested in the relationship between anxiety
symptoms and self-medication with alcohol because the research
literature to date has shown mixed findings,” he says.
“Some studies found anxiety to be a risk factor for
self-medication. Others found anxiety to be a protective factor.
That happens when anxiety prevents people from attending situations
where alcohol may be present, thereby putting them at lower risk
for possibly experiencing alcohol-related consequences.”
Kimber says another issue he wanted to explore is the effect of
the definition of “negative alcohol outcomes” in
related studies of college students.
“Previous studies with college students usually define
‘negative consequences’ as long-term outcomes like
alcoholism and liver cirrhosis,” Kimber says, “but
since these outcomes are unlikely to affect many students while
they are in college, this study defined negative consequences in
terms more common and immediate to this population – things
like missing classes, academic failure, blacking out or sexual and
Kimber’s study involved 72 college-student subjects with a
mean age of 19 years, 4 months. Of these, 54 percent were
freshman and 41.5 per cent were female.
He says, “We retested the
anxiety/drinking-to-cope/problematic drinking pathway using a
measure of problem drinking developed with and for college student
drinkers: the 48-item Young Adult Alcohol Consequences
Questionnaire, which measures alcohol-related consequences
experienced by an individual over the past 30 days of drinking.
“Subjects also completed the General Anxiety Disorder 7
scale, a self-reported questionnaire used to screen and measure the
severity of general anxiety disorder,” he says, “and
Cooper’s Drinking Motives Questionnaire/Drinking to Cope
Subscale (DMQ-Cope), which assesses drinking motivated by an
attempt to cope with distress or negative mood.
“The study found that high levelsof general anxiety
significantly predicted both drinking-to-cope behavior and negative
alcohol consequences,” Kimber says, “but that
drinking-to-cope behavior does not fully mediate the
relationship between general anxiety symptoms and alcohol
consequences, suggesting that other factors also contribute to
problem drinking patterns among those with high levels of
Kimber says that findings from this work have implications for
cognitive behavioral assessment of and therapy for college
“If clinicians recognize the relationship between levels
of anxiety and self-medication with alcohol among college
students,” he says, “and if they look for negative
symptoms of self-medication specific to college students, they can
help their patients (or clients) recognize, understand and deal
with their symptoms effectively without resorting to