Alcohol Use: The Role of Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Drinking to Cope

Adolescent alcohol dependence and anxiety frequently co-occur, leading researchers to examine the link between these two disorders.

So far the evidence has produced conflicting explanations, with some researchers believing young people are more likely to use alcohol as a coping mechanism against anxiety, and others describing anxiety having a protective effect through contributing to withdrawal from social situations and fear of risky drinking.

In order to further examine the relationship between the two disorders, researchers from the University of Bristol have investigated whether adolescent generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) was linked with frequent drinking, frequent bingeing, hazardous drinking, and harmful drinking. The study collected data from the young people aged 18 and then again at age 21.

Results from the study found:

  • GAD at age 18 was positively linked with concurrent frequent drinking, frequent bingeing, hazardous drinking, and harmful drinking
  • GAD increased the odds of harmful drinking at age 21, but there was no clear evidence of a longitudinal relationship between GAD and the other alcohol use outcomes. 
  • There was no clear evidence of a GAD and 'Drinking to Cope' interaction at ages 18 or 21.

The researchers suggest the changes in drinking between ages 18 and 21 may be explained by a reduction in risk-taking behaviour, changes in environment and context, drinking no longer seen as a novelty, and increased cognitive control.

Changes in the relationship between GAD and alcohol use from age 18 to 21 could be explained by changes in the expectations that alcohol will actually help reduce anxiety.

Although there remains ambiguity as to the relationship between these disorders, the research should be used to inform prevention interventions for adolescents and young adults.

Dyer, M. L., Heron, J., Hickman, M., & Munafò, M. R. (2019). Alcohol use in late adolescence and early adulthood: The role of generalized anxiety disorder and drinking to cope motives. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 107480.
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