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Alcoholism & Addiction

Shared Traits in Depression, Anxiety and Alcohol Addiction

New research has unveiled some common traits shared between people suffering from depression, anxiety and alcohol addiction, potentially offering new avenues for the treatment of these conditions.

Alcohol addiction has long been suspected to have links to various psychological conditions, but the new study aims to shine the light on the specific aspects of the individuals’ personalities underpinning the issues. Many alcoholics also suffer from anxiety or depressive disorders, so learning more about this link may help psychiatrists identify those most at risk of developing them and tailor treatment accordingly. The discovery of shared traits, therefore, offers the first glimmer of hope for identifying drinkers, people struggling with depression or those with anxiety problems who are at risk of developing other conditions.

The Study

The researchers focused on negative emotionality—feelings such as worry, hopelessness and neuroticism—and impulsivity—including the susceptibility to boredom, experience-seeking behavior, disinhibition and thrill-seeking. They looked for these traits in four groups of participants. There were 32 participants who suffered only from alcohol dependence, almost 1,400 who suffered from depression or anxiety alone, just fewer than 360 with alcohol dependence and depression or anxiety and 460 who had no psychological issues. The mixture of groups enabled the researchers to identify whether the traits were associated with comorbidity (depression or anxiety and alcohol dependence), just one condition or none of them. The Dutch researchers used data from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety for this study.

What They Found

All of the aspects of negative emotionality used by the researchers were associated with alcohol dependence, meaning that people who regularly felt hopelessness, for example, were more likely to be alcohol-dependent than people who didn’t. The connection was notably stronger between negative emotions and depression or anxiety, however, and there was also a stronger association between them and comorbid depression or anxiety and alcoholism.

The results for impulsivity traits weren’t as strongly associated as those for negative emotions, and varied a little more between conditions. Susceptibility to boredom and disinhibition (the inability to rein in impulses) were somewhat associated with depression or anxiety alone and with alcohol dependence alone. More specifically, the researchers also found that those suffering from depression or anxiety were less likely to seek thrills or adventure and those with alcoholism alone had more issues with disinhibition. These results both concur with general knowledge regarding the conditions—depressed people are less likely to go seeking fun and adventure and alcoholics struggle to control their impulses.

What It Means

The main thing the researchers gleaned from the study is that negative emotional traits and impulsive traits are distinct and separate from one another, but do overlap in some cases. The results of the study also indicate that negative emotions are stronger predicting factors for psychological problems than impulsivity, although it differs slightly for each condition. Overall, it appears that there are some shared traits between alcoholism and anxiety or depression, but some aspects are unique to a specific condition.

The lead researcher, Lynn Boschloo, believes that the results show how important the individual’s personality is in determining whether he or she internalizes depression and anxiety or externalizes their problems through drinking. If the links observed in this study are confirmed, they could further enable psychologists to identify people at risk and target interventions to those most in need.

Since there are other psychological conditions—such as bipolar disorder—that are associated with alcohol dependence, it could also be that there are shared traits among these conditions and alcoholism. If future research could confirm this, it might show a clearer picture of the individuals’ risk factors to be established than ever before. It’s worth noting, however, that the groups used in this study were of unequal sizes—with the alcohol-dependence-only group in particular being very small—so research with larger samples would help to confirm the hinted at links.

Informing Future Treatment?

The relationships unearthed between the various traits and symptoms of psychological conditions could also reveal new pathways for treatment. For example, if the strong association between negative emotional traits and depression or anxiety is used, interventions designed to reduce negative emotional traits could lead to a marked improvement in these conditions. Similarly, focusing on the disinhibition experienced by many with alcohol dependence could enable them to regain control over their drinking.

Whether or not these interventions would be effective in practice, the research offers psychologists a new window into the conditions, revealing potentially useful risk factors and an understanding of how personality traits may impact an individual’s mental health. In the future, a simple personality test could reveal to psychologists who is at greatest risk for alcoholism, depression, anxiety or a combination of the conditions.

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