Excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States (Mokdad et al., 2004), resulting in functional disability and severe health problems. Stressful life events (SLEs) have long been considered a proximal trigger of heavy alcohol consumption, and many theories of alcoholism are based on the hypothesis that individuals consume alcohol in order to manage the physiological and psychological effects of stress. Emprical findings generally support this intuitive hypothesis; however, the association between SLEs and drinking behaviors is small and there are large individual differences in risk for stress-related drinking (Greenley & Oei, 1999; Keyes et al., 2011; Pohorecky, 1991). As of yet, the specific circumstances under which SLEs influence drinking behaviors are relatively uncertain, leaving many questions about stress-related drinking remained unanswered. For example, although risk factors such as early life adversity, early use of alcohol, and alcohol-related cognitions are broadly associated with heavy drinking in adulthood, much less is known about how these factors impact risk for drinking in response to stressors. ❧ The following series of three studies attempts to address these gaps in the literature using data from the Virginia Adult Twin Study of Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders (VATSPSUD), a population-based study of twins designed to investigate risk and protective factors for psychopathology in adults. More specifically, we examine the following four questions: 1) do people who report using alcohol to cope with negative mood actually consume more alcohol in association with stressful life events? 2) Is risk for stress-related drinking higher among individuals who use alcohol to cope with negative mood and report an early onset of alcohol consumption? 3) Does childhood maltreatment exert a direct influence on risk for alcohol use disorders in adulthood? 4) Are the effects of recent stressful life events altered by exposure to childhood maltreatment? ❧ The availability of a large population-based sample with detailed measures of past-year stressful life events represents a unique opportunity to examine how these risk factors combine and interact to predict alcohol consumption. Moreover, this study improves on prior life event research by differentiating between stressful life events that are rated as independent versus dependent on participants’ behavior and by examining more than one risk factor at a time. The results contribute to knowledge about individual differences in stress-related drinking, potentially guiding the structure of alcohol prevention programs.
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