Targeting Alcohol Abuse with Emotion Regulation Strategies

Closeup of hand pouring beer from draft.
Image by Marcelo Ikeda Tchelão from Pixabay

Many people’s college experience involves some degree of alcohol use. While there’s little harm for most people in the occasional beer or glass of wine, intense alcohol use during this period can spiral out of control and cause serious problems.

In the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, respondents between 18 and 25 years old reported the highest alcohol use rates as well as the highest rates of binge drinking of any age group.

One major reason why excessive alcohol use is so prominent within this age range is that young adults are undergoing vast changes in emotion regulation. This means many young adults lack the strategies that they need to safely manage distress and end up turning to alcohol instead.

Current strategies to combat alcohol abuse rarely acknowledge individual differences in the ability to self-regulate distress. To address this problem, a group of researchers at the University of Connecticut has received a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to test the effectiveness of a more individualized intervention focused on developing effective emotion regulation strategies.

Michael Fendrich, professor and associate dean of research for the School of Social Work, Crystal Park, professor of psychology, and Beth Russell, associate professor of human development and family sciences and director of the Center for Applied Research in Human Development, are co-PIs on this project.

High alcohol use and abuse in college students is associated with myriad negative consequences, including fatal and nonfatal injuries, overdoses, impaired academic and job performance, violence and other crimes, legal problems, unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and social problems.

Research shows that these problems are by no means limited to the college environment. The National Comorbidity Survey finds that for most adults diagnosed with alcohol use disorders, the onset of these problems occurs during early adulthood.

Traditional intervention strategies focus more on changing attitudes and knowledge about the dangers of alcohol use, but often do not address individuals’ lack of safe and healthy emotion regulation skills. The approach in this project is innovative as it will examine the impacts of different types of emotion regulation-oriented interventions for high-risk young adults. These approaches differ from conventional interventions by targeting underlying problems with emotion regulation that lead to alcohol abuse.

“Rather than directly focusing on knowledge and attitudes about alcohol, we are attempting to address the skills that students need to better deal with distressing emotions without turning to alcohol,” Park says.

This study will provide valuable information about the effectiveness of different types of interventions for high risk individuals. If college campuses can select interventions that are more effective for students with a range of risk characteristics, they stand to improve alcohol use and abuse in young adults.

“Our work is the fruit of ongoing collaborations between an interdisciplinary team of researchers from psychology, human development and family sciences, social work, and nursing. In the development of this application, we received critical support from UConn’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP),” Fendrich says. “We are excited to launch this innovative project at UConn that, in the long term, may have potential benefit for our students.”

Michael Fendrich holds a Ph.D. in community psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on policies, services, interventions, and risk factors related to substance misuse and mental health.

Crystal Park received her Ph.D. from the University of Delaware in clinical psychology. Her research interests include stress, coping, meaning making, the psychology of religion and spirituality, trauma, cancer survivorship and yoga.

Beth Russell received her Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut in human development and family sciences. Her research focuses on self-regulation in normative and at-risk samples.

This project is NIH Grant No.: 1R34AA027455-01A1

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